Title: Daughter of the Moon Goddess
Author: Sue Lynn Tan
Genre: Adult Fantasy/Romance
Page Count: 512
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Chinese mythology and culture
Recommended Readers: Fans of The Ghost Bride, Chinese fantasy, and romantic angst
CAWPILE Rating: 7.29
I read Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan much earlier this year for a book club with friends, so this review has been long overdue. I pondered how to write about this story, which features Xingyin separated from her exiled, immortal mother and set on a quest to lift her mother’s imprisonment while also undergoing a journey of self-discovery, romantic love, and familial loyalty.
In the end, I’ve decided to outline my thoughts to match the CAWPILE rating system. Let’s explore the highs and lows of Daughter of the Moon Goddess through the lens of characters, atmosphere, writing, plot, intrigue, logic, and enjoyment.
Despite the moon goddess Chang’e being alluded to in the title, she serves more as a background driving force for the titular character, Xingyin. Married to a mortal archer favored by the gods, Chang’e achieved immortality while pregnant with Xingyin, so the other gods punished her with exile on the moon, where she raised her daughter in secret. After events force Xingyin to be separated from her mother, Xingyin scrambles to find her place in the Immortal Realm while attempting to learn the truth behind her mother’s exile and, more importantly, how to spare her from further punishment.
Let me state early on that I liked Xingyin as a character, but then it was hard to dislike her. The narrative made a lot of concessions towards her that truly weren’t deserved at times. She struggles in the beginning, but not too much. She trains at archery, is moderately decent, and then so exceptional that she somehow gets to establish her own terms of how she will serve in the imperial military, despite being an unproven cadet. Nearly every male character she meets falls in love with her. She is kind to servants and to those above her station who are kind back, and she is vengeful towards those who inspire vengeance. Xingyin remains impulsive throughout the story and only grows as a person in that she becomes more knowledgeable in a worldly sense. However, by and large, she gets to do whatever she wants from beginning to end without the appropriate pushback I believe she needed to experience to be a memorable character. She needed a lot more things to go wrong for her.
In short, I enjoyed her point of view, but I wish the narrative hadn’t held her hand the entire time. Xingyin had the strength of character and the skillsets to be challenged into growing as a person, but it never truly happens. This constancy is emphasized by how the narrative voice never changes, never matures despite Xingyin’s young age as she enters the Immortal Realm and the many years she spends away from her mother.
A character Xingyin interacts with early on is Liwei, the Crown Prince of the current Emperor. He establishes a place for Xingyin in his court as his study mate and friend, and inevitably, the two fall into an ill-timed and doomed sort of love. Where lost love is a theme that begins with Xingyin’s parents, it is mirrored in her own relationship with Liwei. I liked Liwei in terms of his relationship with Xingyin because it scratched that itch of yearning I enjoy with romance, but on his own, Liwei is quite forgettable. If he had had more scenes like the one involving Lady Hualing, we could’ve really been cooking with spices. Ultimately, though, he isn’t as utilized as I would’ve liked and doesn’t experience much growth, either.
Where my interest truly blossomed was in Wenzhi’s character. He is the Captain of the Guard who Xingyin—well, “is assigned to” isn’t accurate to say. She chooses to serve in his unit as some kind of independent soldier. Anyway. Wenzhi seems fairly straight-laced in the beginning, but there are nuggets dropped here and there which imply otherwise. In truth, his character growth is actually a plot twist more than real growth, but I enjoyed the twist so damn much that he and the author get full points from me. If Xingyin and Liwei are the tragic yearning of romantic love, then Xingyin and Wenzhi are the intensity and passion of obsessive love. I won’t say further about Wenzhi because he’s something I’d love for other readers to experience as freshly as possible.
As for other characters, there are minor ones, to be sure, but absolutely none of them matter the way these main three do. I wish that aspect of the book was different because I love a large cast of characters, but Daughter of the Moon Goddess did not put the bulk of its work into developing characters.
Chang’e’s palace on the moon, the Celestial Kingdom, the Eastern Sea Kingdom, the Demon Realm, the dragons, the fashion—there are so many aspects where the atmosphere was rich beyond belief. Here is an area where Sue Lynn Tan showed her skill, and as a debut author, it was incredibly impressive. Every scene, I could envision. Every article of clothing described, I could see and touch its textures. Every flower and meal, I could smell and taste. This is a novel that caters to the senses.
Then, there was Xingyin’s narrative voice capturing the emotion of the moment so completely, it was like I was standing right there with her. You know how there are some books that are just vibes but nothing else? Daughter of the Moon Goddess brings the vibes but also the world-building substance to go with it.
The sharpness and distinction of the descriptions is a major strength of Sue Lynn Tan’s. She also captures the lyrical prose of emotional writing very well and maintains a fast pace in describing setting, action, and scene transitions throughout the novel. Those who enjoy snappy, “let’s get right to it!” adventures with colorful descriptions will thrive while reading this one. Those who want more from the characters, however, may struggle a bit.
For all Tan can set a scene, however, I was often distracted by the odd placements of commas and em dashes, which were inaccurate enough to disrupt my own pace and detract from the reading experience.
While the plot starts off simple with Xingyin wishing to return home and free her mother, it soon expands and develops as Xingyin navigates the imperial court and more political players are brought to the forefront. When Xingyin doesn’t achieve instant results, she also gets to explore facets of herself that she never had a chance to or neglected before. The original plot frames the novel, though, so you, like me, may only experience surprises more towards the middle and the third act of the book.
I liked the plot, though, as I do with anything that involves the struggle of family loyalty and a little bit of politicking. Being surrounded by immortal beings and various aspects of Chinese mythology helps it go down easy, too.
For the first half of the book, my intrigue was middling and certainly not my driving force of reading. I sensed early on that I wouldn’t have to worry too much about Xingyin and that she would never be truly in danger of failing, and I was right. Fortunately, the mystery of just how she would succeed kept me going. Wenzhi came in clutch on the rest.
For the most part, Daughter of the Moon Goddess tracks from a logical standpoint. It goes a very basic route with its magic system rather than dipping too much into how it works, which is fine by me. I’d rather suspend my disbelief for twinkling lights and surging emotions instead of getting snagged on rules that either don’t make sense or don’t jive with other ones that are established.
Regrettably, there remains one glaring issue I have with this story.
Okay, look, I can accept that Xingyin is a natural talent at archery and that she can learn bow and arrow skills extremely quickly. We do see her train, which is more than some books give me, and besides that, male characters often get to be just as skilled, just as easily. Look at how skilled Liwei and Wenzhi are in comparison, for instance. Readers do not expect for the book to explain their proficiency the way we typically expect it to explain Xingyin’s in excruciating detail to justify why she’s capable.
The thing that does make me tilt my head is her fake military position. What kind of soldier without a proven track record can pick and choose their own assignments? General Jianyun and Captain Wenzhi cannot seem to do this, despite their higher ranks. They go where they are assigned by their commanding officers or the Emperor. At court, no one knows that Xingyin is Chang’e’s daughter. She is essentially treated as a commoner of no rank besides being Prince Liwei’s companion, which certain elements of the court scorn. Why, then, does Xingyin get this unbelievable privilege on the mere basis that her archery training has gone super well?
The answer is that the plot believes she needs to have this freedom in order for the rest of the plot to be carried out. If you can ignore that glaring issue, then it’s fine and you’ll have a good time with the book. If you can’t, then it’s fair to say you will struggle because all of the characters who interact with her also go along with this special privilege that no one can fully explain or justify. Even her rank of “First Archer” is completely made up on the spot by Wenzhi to make Xingyin sound more official; everyone knows it’s a fake rank, and yet… They go along with it as if it means something, as if it’s impressive.
At the very least, Xingyin does demonstrate the skills necessary to warrant other immortals being impressed with her. The hang up continues to be that she is operating in a military setting but can disobey orders and do as she pleases as a free agent without official consequences because Wenzhi gives her all the leeway she wants. The book constantly emphasizes that anything Xingyin does is “her choice,” which is now lazy shorthand for “this book is feminist,” ignoring how much said choice makes no sense and doesn’t do much for Xingyin’s agency. I would rather see a female character be put in a situation she didn’t choose but winds up making the best of or, even better, one who finds a way to turn the tables to her advantage compared to an empty gesture like this.
Especially because if Xingyin had just been assigned to Wenzhi’s unit like a regular soldier would have, the plot would’ve stayed the exact same. If she had risen through the ranks based on her achievements and tactical ability, it would’ve spoken more to her character and helped better explain why Wenzhi came to trust her and regard her so highly.
Despite my gripes, I enjoyed Daughter of the Moon Goddess as a whole and am deeply interested in where the sequel is going. It’s still months later, but all the elements it did well—the atmosphere, the world-building, the fast-paced plot, the romances—are still things I think about fondly. I point out the aspects I didn’t like simply to analyze why that was and to ponder how they could’ve been improved. Regardless of those feelings, Daughter of the Moon Goddess stands out this year as a debut work and is reason enough to put Sue Lynn Tan on my radar for more books to come.