I posted this thing on Goodreads first. Goodreads where no one reads my good Goodreads reviews. Heh. Info about this book down here: it’s written by Alison Goodman, it’s about identity and gender nonconformity, and WAIT! Before you dive out through a windowpane, it isn’t as bad as you’re imagining. It has dragons and shit.
I did a review for this a long time ago, but it feels outdated now, and besides, my perspective has changed a lot since back then. I always was interested in this book, but now it relates more sharply to my own identity struggles, so I think I’ll be able to wring out a better review.
So, I got the book many a year ago, courtesy of one of my friends for a birthday present. He probably read the sleeve where it says how Eon, our conflicted main character, is a girl under the guise of a boy in order to compete in a thingy where you may or may not go home with a dragon. But not in the way you’re thinking. Goddamn it, I hate sexual innuendos. Anyway, he must’ve read that, and immediately hooked it up with me – fair enough. I like dragons, I dress like a boy. It’s cool. You know what? I AM a boy! And that’s where my great issue with this story comes into the light…
Immediately I sympathized with Eon for her difficult situation. Gotta be a boy, gotta get that training done, gotta win that dragon. (Gotta catch ’em – all? No, don’t put that reference in here, why would you do that?) She’s struggling with an identity that, sigh, has been forced upon her, and that she didn’t necessarily want to accept. Also she happens to have a crippled leg, and so that makes it extra hard for her to keep up with the boys in the training sessions she’s going through in order to… mm… right, be the Dragoneye. Gotta win that dragon.
However, she does it. Mustering her awesomeness, she gets through the training – and SPOILER! – happens to win not just the wussy Tiger Dragon’s favor, but the super cool MIRROR DRAGON’S favor, which is a dragon that’s been – like gone or something, for a long time. I can’t remember the specifics, but it’s a honking big deal. So now, with all the attention on her, all this business of passing herself off as a boy becomes of paramount importance. Because girls can’t have dragons, and they can’t be important, and they can’t do anything, really. We’re in ancient Japan-China here, I should mention; people aren’t totally nice or accepting.
So it would be horrible if anyone found out she was a girl. So she drinks fancy moon tea to deal with the period thingy that girls have, and pretends to be a eunuch so nobody finds it weird that she looks like a twelve year old boy, and will forever. She goes to this palace for some reason I sort of forget and that’s where the BORINGNESS hits.
It had me pulling out my hair. It’s so boring. Do you like – paving stones? BOY, I hope so! There’s certainly a lot of them! And drinking tea, and long pointless rituals, and a few totally uninteresting deaths, and soooo much nothing happening that I just don’t even know why it really happened in the first place. This book’s thick, you know, like five hundred pages. And it really doesn’t have to be.
But, if you struggle through the three hundred-odd pages of blank boredom, you’ll be rewarded with some small high points. For instance, Ryko the eunuch and the transgender woman (I forgot her name), and – no… that’s all. Okay, Ryko and her.
Honestly… Eon/Eona is not very wonderful. She’s a bit cold or something. Her personality doesn’t exactly shine and sparkle off the page – it just sort of sits there, bland and somewhat interesting. She has no sense of humor and that bothered me. Certainly she’s in a very bad spot, and her life hasn’t been easy – she’s an orphan, crippled, and unhappily struggling to just get through things while having to suppress her identity – but come on. One joke? One light observation? That’s all I really want here.
However, the book is well-written. No doubt it is. And there are enough action sequences to at least make up for maybe a quarter of all the boringness. What I didn’t like was the magic concept – it wasn’t well introduced, or well flushed-out, and frankly, it made no damn sense whatsoever. So some boys compete to be the favored apprentice or something of the magic dragons that correspond to the Chinese zodiac – … but why? As far as I understand it, after you get them you just sort of sit around drinking tea for the rest of your life.
If there wasn’t all this crap about magic, I think I would’ve liked it more. Which is odd, because usually I hate realistic fiction – but this story would’ve benefited from less dragons and auras and general badly-explained magicky weirdness. I think I get that it’s supposed to be a part of the world, subtly in the background, but it was too difficult to understand, and didn’t really fit in with what was going on.
The two best characters were Ryko and the transgender lady. Both defying the norms of gender, which I really enjoyed, and both honestly more likable than Eon herself. Also I think there’s a romance brewing, or previously brewed, between them, which was interesting – waaaay more interesting than Eon’s fleeting crush on the prince. Luckily by the end she elbowed him in the throat and that was that.
So, on to the biggest part. My major, all-consuming gripe with this book is that at the end (spoiler) Eon accepts the identity of herself as girl. I found it annoying, because I thought that it was really all one big drawn-out buildup into her accepting herself as a boy. And then, nope. She’s really a girl. Wonderful.
But not wonderful, because that’s where I lost her. Up until that final resolution where the Mirror Dragon accepts her once and for all (not so subtle message for accepting oneself!) I’d been completely relating to her, inside and out, on every level (even while not completely liking her personality). Here was the ancient China-Japan magic dragon-world equivalent of me. Finally I was represented truthfully and respectfully in a real book, and it made me happy. Then at the end she goes and wants to be a girl, after all the trouble she went to – and fine, shut up, most girls stay girls all their lives. But some don’t, like me.
So, Eon/Eona, I’m sorry to say I’m not happy with you. What’s this book about, if it’s not about defying gender norms? I mean there’s already a transgender character in here, why can’t you be that, too? I almost feel like Alison Goodman bailed out at the end, like she was really thinking about keeping Eon a boy but then something stopped her. Or maybe her plan was just to do what she ended up doing all along. Either way, it displeased me. Displeased is a good word. Sebastian, make me some tea.
At the end of the day, I guess Eon is a good book. The messages are all correct and good, and the truthfulness of everyone’s problems is actually astounding – Alison Goodman doesn’t shy away from going into detail about how people are feeling and suffering. The transgender woman is not treated respectfully. Eon is distrusted for being a cripple. This author, much to her credit, faces down issues that most authors would swerve right off a bridge to avoid. For that, Eon has my approval, even though I don’t like how it turned out. 3 stars, therefore.