Dori Jones Yang has crafted a thrilling historical novel centered around the visit of Marco Polo to the Great Khan Khubilai who was a grandson of Genghis Khan. Alos known as Kublai Khan, he was the 5th Khan to rule the Mongolia Empire from 1260 to 1294. Among his major conquests was the subjugation of China and the forming of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. The Great Khan Khubilai met Marco Polo's father, Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo when they travelled to Asia years before. Daughter of Xanadu explores the time when Marco now in his early twenties returns with his father and uncle to Mongolia.
In this regard, Daughter of Xanadu is a romanticized fictional account of some of Marco Polo's adventures in Xanadu. According to the opening of the story, it tells "the story of two adventurous hearts from thousands of miles and worlds apart: one from medieval Venice and the other from the royal court of the Mongol Empire."
Fifteen year old Emmajin, granddaughter of the Great Khan Khubilai has a mind of her own. More capable at archery and horsemanship than her numerous brothers, including her half-brothers Suren and Temur, Emmajin is determined to be a warrior in the Khan's army. After competing in an archery competition, Emmajin petitions her grandfather to become a warrior. Instead of granting her wish he assigns her to spend time with young Marco Polo to learn about the countries to the West and to find weaknesses that the Mongols might exploit in order to bring about the conquest of Christendom. However, as time goes on, Emmajin begins to find herself attracted to Marco and his kindly way. His respect for women is unlike anything Emmajin has experienced. When she does eventually discover a potential weakness her love for Marco creates tremendous conflict.She finds herself questioning the Mongol way of war and conquest.
Eventually Emmajin gets her wish and becomes a soldier in the Khan's army along with Suren and Temur. It isn't until Emmajin and Suren are assigned to join a small reconnaissance party into southern China to investigate Burmese incursions that she gets her first taste of battle. In a major battle with the Burmese who use elephants, Emmajin's perceptions of war, manhood, valor, and life and death are forever changed. The suffering and loss of life shatter her ideals. Determined to make a difference, Emmajin reconsiders her life and what she wants from it.
Daughter of Xanadu is finely crafted, with lots of detail about life in Xanadu and the customs of the Mongolian people in the late 1200's. Marco Polo's family who are merchants are portrayed as somewhat naive about the intentions of the Great Khan. Emmajin is a well developed character who, with her feministic character will appeal to young women readers. I wondered if it was possible in any way for a woman to become a warrior in Mongolian culture. Somehow, I am doubtful of this prospect. Nevertheless, this book is a great read and doesn't deserve the ending Yang wrote. The ending is somewhat anticlimatic, with the remaining chapters tying up the loose ends surrounding Marco Polo and Emmajin. I wasn't too keen on the suggestive ending either.
Overall though, this was a great read and I enjoyed the book. Historical fiction is hard to write well and I think Yang has accomplished this. She took a very unknown period in history and has made it accessible to young readers. That is what historical fiction is all about.
Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jone Yang
New York: Delacorte Press 2011