Maximum Shelf: A SONG TO DROWN RIVERS (5/14/24)

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This week’s Shelf Awareness Maximum Shelf pick is Ann Liang’s A SONG TO DROWN RIVERS, an epic historical fantasy about womanhood, war, sacrifice, and love against all odds.

Xishi’s beauty is seen as a blessing to the villagers of Yue—convinced that the best fate for a girl is to marry well and support her family. When Xishi draws the attention of the famous young military advisor Fanli, he presents her with a rare opportunity: to use her beauty as a weapon. One that could topple the rival neighboring kingdom of Wu, improve the lives of her people, and avenge her sister’s murder. All she has to do is infiltrate the enemy palace as a spy, seduce their immoral king, and weaken them from within.

Trained by Fanli in everything from classical instruments to concealing emotion, Xishi hones her beauty into the perfect blade. But she knows Fanli can see through every deception she masters, the attraction between them burning away any falsehoods.

Once inside the enemy palace, Xishi finds herself under the hungry gaze of the king’s advisors while the king himself shows her great affection. Despite his gentleness, a brutality lurks and Xishi knows she can never let her guard down. But the higher Xishi climbs in the Wu court, the farther she and Fanli have to fall—and if she is unmasked as a traitor, she will bring both kingdoms down.

“This incantatory tale of Chinese historical fantasy glistens with tearful attraction and bloody betrayals against a transportive backdrop. The strife of living is vivid in Xishi’s village, where she tracks time as ‘the stretch between two meals.’

Xishi speaks eloquently, too, of legend…and the future she is generating…as her own story unfolds. This awareness perhaps serves to upend the stories that accompanied her birth–tales of her beauty causing fish to forget how to swim, which Liang pulls from Chinese history. ‘In these stories,’ Xishi reflects, ‘I am reduced to someone barely even human, a creature of myth.’ Men’s idea of beauty, Xishi recognizes, rests upon a woman as a ‘dull shell who has no personality and makes no sound.’ But her actions throughout her time with Fuchai dismantle this idea through Liang’s brilliant inversion of a concubine’s typical role.

This clever setup allows for breathtaking court intrigue, which in turn intensifies the deep passion that underlies romantic moments… To achieve her aim–to ‘burn this kingdom down to ashes’–she must rely on her wits to topple men who believe everything belongs to them. This formidable strength of a woman thought harmless brings together every gut-wrenching moment of this spectacular novel.”–Shelf Awareness


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