After closing the cover of Janie Chang’s new release, The Library of Legends (William Morrow), I was filled with a sense of wonder that sent me to my trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary for a way to describe what I’d just witnessed. A legend is a story that comes down to us from the past, I read, “especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.”

This confirmed my sense of the story I’d just read: Janie Chang has written a work of historical fiction that carries the resonance of a legend.

Inspired by a wartime school relocation experienced by her own father, Chang created the fictional Minghua University, whose students must flee coastal Nanking in 1937 when danger from the Japanese invasion draws near. It isn’t just the students’ own safety at risk: they are charged with relocating a five-hundred-year-old collection of Chinese myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends.

A DEEP RESPECT FOR LITERATURE AND LORE

A reverence for literature makes one of the students, Lian, feel personally connected to this mission. Over the course of the thousand-mile walk inland, a harrowing journey complicated by death, intrigue and the constant threat of bombing, Lian gains a deeper appreciation of the hope offered by the tales. One in particular speaks to her romantic nature: the legend of the Willow Star and the mortal prince she’s been waiting to unite with through numerous human incarnations. Lian discusses the stories with handsome Shao and his servant, Sparrow, with whom she strikes up a special camaraderie. But when Lian learns that she has a special ability to see spirits that remain invisible to her fellow students, she shuts away her budding love for Shao as a matter of honor — her sworn duty must first be to the immortals whose legends she reveres.

Meanwhile, Lian’s friendships are tested when a secret from Lian’s past forces her into an uncomfortable partnership with the professors on the journey. Political unrest among the students results in murder and further complications for Lian, all while she deals with uncertainties about the whereabouts and well-being of her mother since life on the road makes communication all but impossible.

MAGICAL REALISM ENCHANTS CHANG’S JOURNEY

Chang’s colorful descriptions of the immortal spirits and the Library of Legends itself — “a record of all that had been wondrous in China” — promises her fans that she has not abandoned the magical realism that added such a special dimension to the Chinese settings in her previous novels, Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road. In fact, she ups the stakes: The Library of Legends will leave the reader with a refreshed awareness of the consequences of war and its crimes against culture.

We can rest in Chang’s assured hands for every step of the journey. Anchoring the story within key historic facts about the Japanese invasion is only one way she helps the reader suspend disbelief. Her evocation of the trials of the walk itself are convincing. As someone who at a similar age failed twice to walk the full 25-mile March of Dimes Walkathon, I fully sensed the toll that the thousand-mile trek was having on the bodies and spirits of these characters. I felt again those tight muscles and resolving blisters that kept me gimping for days afterward.

A BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN AND IMMERSIVE READ

In the end, it’s the writing itself that imbues the story with gravitas. A simple sentence such as “Her mother had schooled her in caution” extends the story beyond the timeframe covered on its pages. “She was more skilled at deflecting than befriending” skillfully builds believable characters with the quickest of strokes. In such confident hands, even the most minor characters warm our hearts.

The novel is so immersive that if it ends up being read as widely as it deserves, I can see it becoming part of our collective global memory, causing readers to one day say to their children, “Let me tell you the legend of a group of university students who set out on a thousand-mile trek in order to protect China’s magical spirits … ”

Reading The Library of Legends represents nothing less than your chance to shoulder some of the responsibility of extending the lore surrounding China’s magical spirits.

Buy this book!

Janie Chang writes historical fiction with a personal connection, drawing from a family history with 36 generations of recorded genealogy. She grew up listening to stories about life in a small Chinese town in the years before the Second World War and tales of ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts and immortals. Her first novel, Three Souls, was a finalist for the 2014 BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and her second novel, Dragon Springs Road, was a Globe and Mail national bestseller. Both were nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award. Her third book, The Library of Legends, was a Book of the Month Club pick.

She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She is the founder and main organizer of Canadian Authors for Indies, a national day of support by authors for independent bookstores, which ran from 2015–2017; this event is now run as Canadian Independent Bookstore Day by the Retail Council of Canada. Born in Taiwan, Janie has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand and New Zealand. She now lives in beautiful Vancouver, Canada.