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by Da Chen

Age Range: 11 - 15

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2003
ISBN: 0-385-73020-9
Publisher: Delacorte

One assumes that this story was pitched at an acquisitions meeting as “Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Luka, an orphan, has been raised by the indigent monk Atami as the Chosen One, the Holy Boy destined to free China from the Mogo occupation. Instead of a scar on his forehead, he bears five moles on each foot, and, like his Western counterpart, he must undergo severe trials and learn an arcane art in order to realize his destiny. A series of misadventures (including a short stay on death row), which separates him from Atami, leads to Luka’s discovery of a new mentor, Yin Gong grandmaster Gulan, and his formal apprenticeship at the Xi-Ling temple. Chen’s (China’s Son, 2001) first foray into fiction represents a headlong dash through an alternate China in which magic lurks just below the surface. Luka is an appealing character whose determination and facility with the martial arts are balanced by humor and a healthy dose of pre-adolescent competitiveness. He collects around him a coterie of friends, from a pair of street ruffians to a trio of students who instruct him in temple etiquette and help him in his feud with Yi-Shen, the resentful boy he displaces as junior master. The language is colloquial, even earthy, and helps to maintain the work’s sense of fun; this is light years away from the ponderous, stilted martial-arts saga of the popular Western imagination. The breathless pace helps to conceal some looseness in the plotting, including a real fuzziness about the time elapsed during Luka’s adventures, but with secret tunnels and magical beasts galore, who cares? While the story and characters cannot be accused of blazing originality, this offering nevertheless presents an agreeable and unusual twist on a tried-and-true formula—a solid addition to the “While you’re waiting for . . . ” display. (Fiction. 11-15)