Two royal siblings—turned into rabbits—search for a unicorn spirit to reverse the spell, discovering who they are in the process.
In the prologue, Naso, the jerboa mouse who narrates this debut novel, explains that a human palace’s mural depicts “an odd-looking, skinny rabbit with a crown….holding a sword in the air. That is the Rabbit Princess.” The main story, told in present tense, concerns how she came to be. In the opening chapters, the widower Emperor lives with his two children, the Princess Annie, 12, and her younger brother, Crown Prince Pika, 10, in a great palace. There, the spoiled children, especially Annie, “torment the staff all day long.” When she has a young boy thrown into jail for failing to kowtow, it’s the final straw, inciting the villagers to rebel. The Emperor and his general are sentenced to execution, and Shaman Wu turns the children into their favorite stuffed animals, banishing them to the Snow Forest. Annie is now a skinny, yellow rabbit, and Pika, a short, chubby white one. They meet a friend in Naso, who explains that a “heartless and unforgiving” tiger spirit named Moyen rules a massive kingdom, excepting Cloud Mountain and Dragon Desert. Qilin, a unicorn and “the mother of all spirits,” lives in the Desert and could help the rabbits, but Moyen has war on his mind and special plans for Annie. The siblings have some animal and spirit allies, but the journey won’t be easy. Nevertheless, with courage, new fighting skills, and especially hope, the rabbits might be able to find the unicorn—and their purpose.
In his book, Chen offers a well-written fable about growing up through confronting shortcomings and learning to be of service to others. The siblings’ transformation into living stuffed animals is a neatly symbolic way of showing how they’ve become alienated from their human nature. Annie has the longest way to go in dropping her selfish ways and accepting her metamorphosis as a path toward self-knowledge. At first, jailed with her brother, her insight stretches only as far as her immediate family. In a “moment of pure clarity,” she realizes “she just wants her family safe.” Later, she earns respect by her focus on healing and helping other animals. In addition, the novel’s setting is intriguing, with its mix of more modern culture (for example, the stuffed animals) and figures from Chinese legend (the unicorn). While often ruminative about subjects like moral choices and the nature of evil, the story also delivers exciting action scenes and bold descriptions; Moyen’s “stark yellow eyes look like dead demons burning.” Episodes of animals killing one another might be tough for tenderhearted readers to take. The author’s economic black-and-white sketches help readers visualize the siblings’ alteration and nicely capture the various animals’ personalities, such as a panda’s searching look.
An engaging and thoughtful coming-of-age tale.