Book Review: To The Sky Kingdom

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Title:  To The Sky Kingdom

Author: Tang Qi, translated by Poppy Toland

Series: No

Rating: 2/5 Stars

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Book Depository // Amazon


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.

To The Sky Kingdom.png

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?

13 thoughts on “Book Review: To The Sky Kingdom

  1. It sounds like–except for the lack of character development–the main issue with this book was the translation. It’s very disappointing when a translation fails to pay tribute to the original. I understand how hard translating is, but I always thought translated books are a hit or miss case–either the translator nails it or the story is a fail.

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  2. I realised that this was available in Kindle Unlimited so I actually got it out and gave it a try, and you are truly amazing for getting through it. Perhaps it’s because I have a point of comparison, but I found the translation /too/ jarring and couldn’t get past that and into the story 😞

    Women lacking agency, obsessive/controlling love interests, and even really dubious consent are really common and accepted tropes in Chinese novels, sadly. It really makes me appreciate the YA community and the way that most of us are really outspoken about doing justice to female characters and the romanticisation of unhealthy relationships!

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  3. I haven’t read many translated novels but I know that a lot of charm and humor is lost in books that have been translated as there are certain phrases and such that can only be fully enjoyed in the original language. My family and I speak some Afrikaans (one of South Africa’s languages) and if you try to translate some of the stuff into English it loses its effect! Sorry you didn’t enjoy this! ❤

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  4. Wonderful balanced review Aentee! I wanted to read The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin but the translated copy I have doesn’t seem to be the best translation. I’d love to read/watch more Wuxia. Hopefully, there will be other books with better translations coming through in the future.

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  5. I love those wuxia legendary shows as well, dad used to watch all of them when I was younger! Sadly, I haven’t really caught up with them. I love how this is a Chinese fantasy that has been translated into English though, because it certainly reminds me of my childhood. Sad to hear that much of it has been lost in translation. Thanks for featuring Aentee!

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  6. Aww I’m sorry this didn’t work out for you (also wow, plagiarism, eek). I’m wondering if maybe the names would have been better if they just kept the Chinese pronunciation for it, like maybe just the pinyin. Either way, I probably won’t be reading this. I’m trying to think of anything that has been translated from Mandarin to English, but nothing is coming up :/

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  7. Great review, it’s so disappointing to hear that the translation just didn’t convey the depth of the story. I am all for more translated novels (I try and read at least one a month) but communicating the cultural nuances and explaining elements which are implicitly understood by native speakers is a big challenge for translators. If you do find any great C-fantasy in English I would love to hear about them – I really enjoyed The Three Body Problem which was the first C-sci-fi I have ever read.

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