Taking off from the true story of how the famous terra-cotta army was discovered, and weaving in Ying Chang Compestine’s experiences as a child of an ‘intellectual’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, this is an unusual and intriguing setting for a fantasy novel.
In 1970s rural China, some farmers find a broken terra-cotta figure and bring it to the house of Ming and his father, an archaeologist. When the head starts to talk to Ming, it reveals itself to be Shi, a teenage soldier from over 2000 years ago, who fought in Emperor Qin’s army and is now one of thousands of terra-cotta soldiers guarding his tomb.
After Shi is re-assembled, he and Ming work together to outwit the villagers, led by the corrupt Political Officer, who want to ransack the tomb and discredit Ming’s father. There’s lots of fascinating information about how the tomb was protected with traps, and Shi’s multipart narrative of how he became one of the guardians adds more boy-appeal excitement.
However, I found the prose very stiff and unappealing (much like I do the prose of Margi Preus – and she’s been Newbery honored, so it’s obviously my problem not the writers’) and I found the inclusion of the murky black and white photos to be confusing – it feels like nonfiction layered uncomfortably on top of fiction.
Nonetheless, the parallels drawn between Emperor Qin and Mao, and the recreation of the crushing poverty and cruel social dynamics of the time and place, make this a worthwhile, if somewhat prosaic, read.
Review based on an ARC.