In this tale of magic and self-discovery, 10-year-old Su Ling—given the so-called honorof being sent to a workhouse in place of her older sister—discovers she possesses hidden powers when she gains entry into a secret society in touch with the unseen forces of the universe.
In Osborne’s first novel, set in Imperial China of 5 B.C., she meticulously constructs her protagonist from the ground up. Su Ling is a nonentity in a rigidly structured society, clinging to her only possession—a glass fledgling bird. The first-person narrative poignantly conveys her fear, awe and submissiveness as she leaves her family to sleep in a windowless room with many other girls, toiling day after day under the watchful eyes of seemingly everyone. Eventually, her skills at preparing potions are noticed, and she’s promoted to the temple, where she, along with her friend Wèi Wèi, a budding clairvoyant, is brought into a clandestine spiritual group. “I named our special group Kou, or ‘family members,’ but I kept this description to myself.” Su Ling becomes an integral part of Kou, which actually engineers the empire’s smooth running, but she pays a tremendous emotional and physical price for her participation. Osborne makes exquisite use of color and description: “It seemed to be adorned with precious lapis lazuli, garnets, rubies, and other stones of deeper hues….These were surrounded by embroidered figures in subtler shades of soft pinks, greens, and ivory.” She intriguingly portrays the tale’s magical aspects—particularly a labyrinth of doors and hallways that appear and disappear at will—and employs to great effect a pervasive theme of bird symbolism, from the glass fledgling to the Temple of the Heavenly Bird with its gardens lined with caged birds. However, the book seems to go on longer than necessary. Of two major incidents that concern Kou, Su Ling is a major participant in only the first, which also seems to be the denouementand her epiphany; the second, she merely sits out.
Beautifully written, introspective, and packed with Eastern philosophy and mysticism; a smart book that will appeal to fantastical and thoughtful sensibilities alike.