By Mandy Wong (22S03C)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
At first glance, Joyce Chua’s Land of Sand and Song seems like a typical YA novel filled with historical fiction and fantasy tropes. There’s a strong-willed princess for its heroine, a rogue prince for its hero and plenty of political drama that I recognise from dipping my toes into Chinese historical dramas. Little did I expect to open it and only stop when I reached the last page.
From the get-go, the book sets up high stakes and successfully maintains them throughout its course. Following an internal rebellion, Desert Rose, the daughter of a desert tribe’s chieftain, is forced to flee to the Oasis Kingdom, where she sets about searching for her father in hopes that he had managed to escape as well. During her search she encounters two princes of the kingdom, the hated Prince Wei and the beloved Prince Meng, and inadvertently becomes embroiled in a series of deadly court politics.
Like most YA main characters, Desert Rose, Wei and Meng are teenagers trying to navigate a cruel world. Each chapter is told from one of their perspectives and sheds light on their unique agendas, both personal and political, that end up intersecting with one another often in the most unlikely of ways. Not only does this allow all of them to be developed holistically, it also enables the reader to get a balanced perspective of what exactly is happening, especially when politics, being politics, are complex and secretive.
In this way, the reader is also prompted to empathise with each of them: Desert Rose, who is thrust into an unfamiliar environment where her honesty and resolve might get her killed; Wei, whose abandonment by his family has left him wrestling with danger at every turn; and Meng, who is constantly burdened by the eyes and expectations of those around him.
There is, in particular, a difference between chapters where Wei and Meng interact with Desert Rose and where each of them stand solo against the odds. Having hailed from the desert, Desert Rose’s fierce loyalty, bravery and innocence provide a breath of fresh air to both the princes and the reader in their shared struggle to decipher the murky truth. Hints of romance are present but not fully developed, which, given the novel’s rapid pace, made it more realistic.
Unfortunately, this generally well-developed trio left other characters in the dust, with overly straightforward motives and minimal disjunction between personality and purpose. Villains like the corrupt Emperor Zhao and his empress Wangyi are portrayed as simple bastions of cruelty and oppression, while side characters like Qara and the girls from the House of Night sometimes feel like convenient markers of plot and setting. Granted, the book did end with the declaration ‘End of Book 1’, implying a sequel, but the result is a story that feels less like one and more like an elaborate backdrop.
Apart from its characters, another noteworthy part of the novel is its setting, a fictional rearrangement of the Taklamakan Desert and Ancient China that, coupled with Chua’s descriptive writing style, makes it easy to understand, if not slightly predictable.
There is, though, the fantasy element that gives the setting a little more depth. Pages between chapters are carved out in italics to explain the myths that underlie the war between magic and men that takes place in conjunction with current events. However, the lack of connection drawn between those myths and current events made the italicised pages rather jarring at times. My guess is that these will be addressed in the potential sequel, but for now I am inclined to skim these pages in favour of the more exciting and dramatic court politics.
The book presents a common theme of mankind’s fear of the unknown and quest for control. In my opinion, this message is where the book shines its brightest as our main characters fundamentally grapple to control their own destiny and craft for themselves a life they truly want. Agency and power have always been essential to humans, and as the fates of many hang in balance, Land of Sand and Song closes with a satisfying end that could take a turn for the better or the worse.
“I don’t believe in destiny. I believe we are the makers of our own lives and are only as free as we allow ourselves to be.”
The Final Verdict:
Overall, Land of Sand and Song was a pretty decent choice in rekindling my teenage appetite for YA novels. If you are looking for a quick read of an intricate adventure, I recommend checking it out (and its sequel too, if it comes to tie up all those loose ends).