Published on June 20th, 2024 | by Rob Mammone

Book review: Of Jade and Dragons by Amber Chen

Of Jade and Dragons, author Amber Chen, published by Penguin Books in 2024. Cover art by Kelly Chong.

Pulling from the early Qing dynasty, then layering over elements of steampunk (or silkpunk, as the author’s site terms it), Of Jade and Dragons, which is Chen’s debut novel, is a confident and fast paced entry into the bubbling young adult fiction market.

Aihui Ying is a young woman living on a distant island far from the political manoeuvring in the capital. However, distance is never enough protection when an assassin kills her father. Spurred on by her own ambitions to join the Engineers Guild (where her father once attended) and to find her father’s killer and avenge his death, Ying begins a long journey that takes her further than she could ever have imagined.

I’ve been reading fantasy, and its many variations, for more than forty years, and have watched with great interest how in this century, the genre has changed. We’ve seen the welcome opening up of the field to people of colour and many more female voices. What we haven’t seen, to my great amusement and interest, is that the tropes have largely stayed the same. So with Of Jade and Dragons, while the setting is certainly not the Western Europe with dragons that I grew up with, a lot of the details are tropes seen over the decades. A long journey, by an orphan with hidden skills and abilities escaping their rural backwater (Lord of the Rings (if you squint), Pawn of Prophecy, Magician etc etc).

None of this is a criticism of Chen – in fact it is comforting to see that despite all the changes in the field, some things are immutable. Readers want to see people triumph over adversity, and the lower their starting position, the greater the thrill as they climb to success.

Chen is an able writer who has created an immersive world inspired by Chinese history. While this is a YA novel, it isn’t written down to the level of children. There is violence, death and dark political machinations. There are also fully realised characters, like Ying, and those who are more conflicted, yet driven, such as Aogiya Ye-yang, son of the High Commander.

Chen does an admirable job of evoking Chinese history, the language, the customs, societal expectations, all within the framework of what is a fast paced, action packed story. Her characters, particularly Aihui Ying, are well drawn and compelling. Chen’s ability to reveal the story, layer by layer like an onion, demonstrates her skills as a writer and ability to control multiple strands. The deeper we the reader are led into the story, the more complex it becomes, and the more stunning the revelations. At a deeper thematic level, the journey of discovery Ying takes into the true meaning behind the events that started well before her father’s death, mirrors the process all teenagers undergo as the adult world opens to them, with all the opportunities and costs that become available.

I really, really enjoyed this book. It is a confident debut (though Chen has had other work self published) that bodes well for Chen’s career. Chen has written a book that demonstrates to their readers that boundaries are made to be crossed, that restrictions others place on you are for their benefit (mostly) and not for yours (mostly). It is an inspiring message for teenagers dealing with the anxieties of life – that if you’re true to yourself, and follow your instincts, you can (mostly) achieve your dreams. For those with teenage children looking for a book in the fantasy field that is full of strong characters, an evocative backdrop, full of excitement and action and deep emotion, you can’t go wrong with Of Jade and Dragons.

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