Title: To The Sky Kingdom
Author: Tang Qi, translated by Poppy Toland
Rating: 2/5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Netgallet and the publisher in an exchange for an honest review.
It pains me on multiple levels that I did not fully enjoy this book, as I wished with all my heart that I would love it. Known in its native China as Three Lives, Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossom (三生三世，十里桃花 )– this particular title is making waves in its homeland, with both a star-studded movie and TV series in production. It’s also one of the first contemporary Chinese romance fantasy to be translated into English, and although I did not enjoy this particular story, I hope to see more works translated in the future.
Most of my disappointment for this book stemmed from my predisposition to love it. I am Vietnamese, but I grew up consuming a lot of Chinese fantasy and media, thanks to my grandfather’s love of wuxia and historical series. I continue to love these type of shows until this very day, and still regularly watch popular series – I love the way these fantasy combine Chinese mythology and religion with fresh new worlds. The themes and tropes in these stories are as familiar to me as my own name.
The plot of To The Sky Kingdom is convoluted in ways only a Chinese fantasy could be, filled with past lives and romantic entanglements. Bai Qian, our heroine, is a fox spirit turned goddess, she has cultivated her spiritual energy over tens of millennia. As part of her ascension into divinity, she underwent a calamity – becoming a mortal for a couple of decades. During this time, she met Ye Hua, heir to the Sky Kingdom and they fell in love. Theirs was not a happy union, with the courtship ending in betrayal, heartbreak, and the loss of Bai Qian’s eyes to one of Ye Hua’s concubines. When Bai Qian regained her immortality, she opted to wipe her memories of Ye Hua and her mortal self. Yet, fate has other plans in mind – with Ye Hua and Bai Qian becoming betrothed once she was restored as a goddess.
Much of the nuances of To The Sky Kingdom was lost in translation, one of the most difficult hurdles of translating Chinese fantasy into English. Names of places and people which were so carefully considered in the original sounded awkward in clunky in English, see ‘The God Killing Platform’ or ‘Cloud Destroying Fan’. Bai Qian’s narration also suffered from the translation, with a lot of the emotions and subtleties in her scenes lost between the words. Out of curiousity, I read a Vietnamese fan translation of part of this book for comparison. I felt that these did a much better job – I connected to the characters more when the proses remained true.
The world of To The Sky Kingdom was complex and populated with an array of characters: gods, goddesses, demons, and spirits with gender fluidity. The world building was reminiscent of many other Chinese fantasy – being heavily based on the shared folk mythology of the country. This means that the book will be confusing for those who are exposed to Chinese fantasy for the first time. Much of the spiritual system and interplay between the gods remained unexplained, as the original intended audience of the book would have understood them implicitly. A lot of the world building is paved by past authors such as Jin Yong or Wu Cheng’en, and heavily influenced by both Taoist and Buddhist ideaologies.
I also felt that the female characters in this book were underdeveloped. Bai Qian remains the central female characters, with other goddesses painted as OTP interlopers or scheming concubines. Bai Qian herself lacked agency, as the story was largely driven by Ye Hua’s obsession with her. At once, he’s infatuated with a past version of herself, yet tries and hide her painful past from her. Bai Qian remains uncomfortably oblivious of their shared history for most of the novel. What was intended to be tragic read as sinister, especially at the beginning of the novel.
This particular book is also surrounded with allegations of plagiarism. I don’t understand Mandarin so I can’t investigate fully, but here’s an English post on it. Thanks to Daisy for pointing this out to me.
With contemporary Chinese fantasy being such a gold mine, I am sad to see that this is one of our first exposures to it in the West. I would only recommend it if you want to see what contemporary C-fantasy looks like, but keep in mind that there are numerous problematic elements in the novel.
Which books would you love to see translated?