Saturday, June 24, 2017

[Review] The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

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Publication (dd/mm/yyyy)01/01/2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Pages: 321
Source: Library
Genre: YA {Historical | Asian}

Violence | Sexual Content | Profanity

Book Tunes

My Rating
4/5 stars

My thoughts

Reading The Fire Horse Girl was a long time coming. Back in 2013 it was placed highly on my wishlist and I knew that I needed to read it. How often do you read about an Asian female protagonist who cross-dresses as a man to escape China in the 1920s? My interest in this book was tied largely with my intense obsession with the Disney hit film Mulan - see: Asian female cross-dressing - but that desire to read it had dulled somewhat when I began to worry about the potential disappointment. What if I didn't like it? Thus why I never picked up my own copy, and I was even about to return this library book back to where it came from when I thought to revisit Goodreads, and luckily for me the reviews I skimmed through were favourable enough that my curiosity was piqued and so the journey began...

The Fire Horse Girl follows 17-year-old Jade Moon, a girl born in the Year of the Fire Horse: in Chinese astrology, it is the absolute worst year for a girl to be born in for it brings about bad fortune - "all of their worst traits - their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness - burn with increased strength". Bad luck seems to surround her wherever she goes. When the adopted son of her now-deceased uncle (of whom she had previously known nothing, as he abandoned the family to live in America, bringing shame to them all) arrives, proposing an opportunity to migrate to America as a 'paper family', she jumps at the chance. Her father is not as keen. However, Jade Moon will stop at nothing to reach the land of dreams and finally know freedom.

Jade Moon is strong-willed, determined and good at getting her way. She is an excellent protagonist to follow: I loved that she reached for her dreams, and yet you could feel the hesitation and inner struggles that she faced while she was doing what needed to be done. She is such a vulnerable person, which isn't surprising considering her upbringing and circumstances. She is a product of her time, all the while you can see her banging her fists against those glass walls trying to break out of the expectations that society had built for her. I loved her for her fierceness, and I forgave her for her silly naivete and ability to land herself in trouble wherever she goes.

Living conditions on Angel Island

The amount of research done for this book is impeccable. While I do think the general feel of San Francisco Chinatown was lacking (where was the description?), I did appreciate the efforts she took to represent the politics present in this setting. Additionally we get to learn quite a lot about the tongs, Angel Island, the 'paper sons', folklore and stories. I never knew about that side of history before, and it's sparked my curiosity: when I go to San Francisco in the future I will certainly want to visit Chinatown. I also felt like the prejudice and discrimination towards Chinese immigrants was accurately portrayed.

The writing style was simplistic, possibly to echo the voice of Jade Moon. At times I saw glimpses of delicate, almost poetic prose. The story plodded along at a steady pace, but I do feel like certain parts could have been condensed slightly. This is definitely YA writing, which isn't anything bad since it's exactly what I signed up for!

I suppose now is as good a time as any to let it be known that there is a love story. What I did like was that it was subtle and did not overshadow the rest of the story. I knew that Jade Moon and this guy would get together, but if I'm being honest I didn't really feel much of a lasting connection there. Their interactions were very sporadic and unpredictable, and a lot of the time I couldn't tell if they loved or hated each other. Nevertheless, I was still happy when they did come together in the end.

Chinatown, San Francisco

Another thing that I could identify with was the contrast between the Chinese traditional customs and ways, with the Western. This can be most overtly seen in the conflicts that arise between Jade Moon and her father. He sacrifices everything for the sake of family duty, and to avoid dishonouring the family name. He seems devoted to marrying his daughter off to a respectable man who will not refuse a Fire Horse girl. Jade Moon has no such plans, and instead wishes for a marriage of love. I felt so remorseful for the both of them, for they would never be able to give the other what they need. In fact, Jade Moon eventually discovers that the biggest demons she fights are the ones within herself, because her father was never approving of who she wanted to be.

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman is an exciting and cleverly written story about a Chinese girl, Jade Moon, who escapes China and disguises herself as a man to survive in the 1920s. The simply written narrative guides the reader along a unique, unwritten journey through the streets of Chinatown, San Francisco. Jade Moon is a strong-willed character, whose underlying vulnerabilities will resonate with the reader. Highly recommended for those looking for more #Asianlit!


First lines:

"There once was a girl, a fire horse girl.
In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Fire Horse is a bad year for Horses. All of their worst traits - their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness - burn with increased strength. Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

"'I wish love was that beautiful.'
'You don't think it is?'
'Only in stories.'
'Then where do the stories come from?' I asked.
'Deep inside of us, where we must bury what we desire most in order to protect it,' she said softly, tugging at the ends of her sleeves. (105)
"'You can love someone as many ways as water falls from the sky. Sometimes it falls with thunder and lightning; other times it falls silently. Sometimes it falls as cool snow, and other times hard balls of ice beat down. If you want the water, you don't get to choose how it falls.'
'You don't get to choose?' I said.
'No,' she said. (140)
"By the last day, they had unraveled and examined every thread of the story I had woven for them. I was lost and trapped inside the story at the same time. I wanted my own story. Why didn't they believe that if I left my home and traveled over the ocean, I needed to be here? Why couldn't I tell them how hard it was to live in China, how people broke off pieces of you to make you fit? Why didn't they want to know what it was like being a fire horse, full of a strength and power that only destroyed everything I touched? (143)
"'You could try to stay here, with me.'
'It is a prison.' He spit the words out, his voice bitter and sharp.
'Yes, but so is China . . . for me. Here I can smell the freedom. It drifts in on the wind. The guards carry it in on their coats.'
'You smell the sweet perfume of lies and false promises.' (155)
"I paused, trying to calm my tears. 'I want love to be offered with an open palm. But I've never seen love like that before.''Except in stories. And there is a magic to believing in something you have never seen.' (?)


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INTERNATIONAL: Abe Books | Book Depository

I have received this review copy in return for an honest review.

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