Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel Daughter of the Moon Goddess has much to live up to, given that it derives its name from a Chinese legend. Tan pays tribute to the original myth of moon goddess Chang’e with insight as she tells the story of the daughter of Chang’e, Xingyin. Xingyin is forced to flee the moon after the Celestial Empress becomes aware that Chang’e has violated the terms of her stay by hosting someone else, Xingyin, during the goddess’ imprisonment on the moon for drinking the immortal elixir.
After her departure from home, Xingyin ends up working as an attendant at a mansion. One day, she encounters Crown Prince Liwei of the Celestial Kingdom, who offers her the chance to compete to be his companion. After winning the competition, she begins spending time at the palace and developing a romantic relationship with the prince, without revealing her true identity. Her overarching goal is to save her mother and bring her down from the moon. From then on, the plot becomes wrapped up in political and magical corruption with merfolk, dragons, demons, and Mind magic.
This is a very character-driven novel, in which Xingyin’s struggle is mostly a product of background circumstances. There’s a well-written sense of Xingyin’s internal voice and a fantastic rendering of the world. Because Tan is using existing source material, however, the beginning section about Xingyin and Chang’e comes off a bit trite, as if Tan wants to explain that this is a story of mythological proportions without showing the reader. The narration attempts to be mysterious, but it’s mostly a narration that attempts to be more than what it is.
While readers are told that Xingyin faces a conflict because she disguises her identity as the daughter of the moon goddess, it doesn’t feel like a particularly urgent or pressing matter throughout the novel until the very end. The story drags on in places when it shouldn’t, like Xingyin’s lessons and training with the prince, and dismisses other significant moments just as abruptly. Overall, the pacing is a bit off, and one can’t help but wonder if the story might be helped by getting to the stakes instead of meandering through sections like life at the palace.
Although Liwei is a likable character, he is also in many ways an archetype of a Prince Charming. Because of that, the romance progresses much too quickly. Perhaps this might be the same issue with the pacing; although the reader is told that an amount of time has passed in terms of Liwei and Xingyin’s time together, Liwei seems to be immediately fascinated with Xingyin. After Liwei’s supposed betrayal — getting betrothed to a princess — a heartbroken Xingyin joins the army and has another love interest, Wenzhi.
When Liwei and Xingyin finally reunite, we’re told that months have passed since Liwei and Xingyin’s last meeting, but Tan writes that it certainly doesn’t feel that long. And it doesn’t, because we don’t spend enough time in the interval between Xingyin’s departure from the palace and this next meeting with the prince for it to have substantial impact.
It’s as if Daughter of the Moon Goddess is interested in so many different subjects that it overcommits, shifting from one storyline to the next without amplifying its central conflict, which should be Xingyin’s identity and her quest to save her mother. Enemies keep changing, as do threats to Xingyin. Some sections, like the concept of spiritual essence and dragons, are intriguing, but many of the associated tensions are quickly resolved.
The book might actually be better suited for a television series, as Tan has a very visually attuned, almost cinematic, sense of storytelling. It serves the writing well, but not so much the actual plot.
Here what Tan needed was a greater sense of focus. At times there’s a dramatic intensity propelling the plot forward, but unfortunately that’s missing for the most part. There’s beautiful prose and a great sense of place, but overall the superiority of these aspects weakens the actual story. The fight sequences are also thrilling and action-packed, but don’t do much except establish Xingyin as a great warrior.
In Xingyin, readers get a character that appears to be good at everything, or has things automatically work out for her by virtue of her birth-given abilities or her relationship with the prince. Despite being a strong female lead, it’s implied that Xingyin has magnificent powers because she is the daughter of the moon goddess, and she is stellar at archery because her father was Houyi the archer. She is who she is by birth.
By the time we get to the second half of the book, the different stories have become so muddled that it’s difficult to predict what will happen next — and not in a suspenseful way. Although the novel has potential, it doesn’t quite reach the moon.