Alison Goodman’s YA-aimed novel is the first half of a duology following Eon, a young boy aspiring to be chosen as an apprentice to a Dragoneye Lord. The Dragoneye Lords are uniquely powerful individuals with their ability to connect directly with one of the 12 dragons of power, each associated with a cardinal direction, color, calendar year, and emotional trait – for example, events in The Two Pearls of Wisdom occur in the Year of the Rat Dragon who is the Keeper of Ambition and is associated with the direction north-northwest and the color blue. This magical connection allows Dragoneyes to achieve great power in the Empire and in their service to the divine Emperor. Each year one apprentice is chosen by the ascendant dragon itself (which are invisible to everyone else).
Eon trains for this honor, but must overcome significant obstacles to achieve the goal. Eon is crippled, which is considered untouchable in the caste-oriented society of the Empire – but the greater obstacle, a secret that must not be known, is that Eon is actually a girl disguised as boy, the charade made possible by her untouchable handicap. The Empire is a strongly patriarchic society and women are not allowed (or even viewed as capable of) the power of the Dragoneyes. The obvious events happen and Eon is thrust into a dangerous world of politics that threaten to reveal her greatest secret.
For me, the real strength of The Two Pearls of Wisdom is its setting – the primary influence stems from medieval China and Japan, not medieval Europe. This setting doesn’t make The Two Pearls of Wisdom unique, just a member of a small club within the wider SFF genre. Not only does this different feel prove refreshing, but it lends itself to be much more poetic in its presentation. While I would hesitate to call Goodman’s writing poetic, it does have an elegant flow to it while maintaining its appropriateness for a YA audience.
The Two Pearls of Wisdom is decidedly YA – it’s written with that audience in mind and marketed towards the YA audience. However, it’s also billed as a cross-over that should equally appeal to adults, ala Harry Potter. As a cross-over, I’d say that The Two Pearls of Wisdom succeeds very much like the Harry Potter – the writing is plenty good enough to keep me interested, the created world is interesting, and the plot complex enough to engage the mind. Of course there are many of the same drawbacks as well – the protagonist is a teenager, with all the blinding certainty common to that age, leading her to do things that are simply stupid. While this may be annoying to me at my more advanced age, it is presented in a consistent and convincing manner.
Much of the plot falls prey to the same sort of issues – this book is rather predictable. If a person is mentioned, they play a role in the plot and have importance that is often greater than it would seem. This is a coming-of-age story and many of the standard plot points are hit. But, Goodman’s story-telling ability smoothes over these weaknesses (if you choose call them such), creating a great story that I simply needed to see through.
The Two Pearls of Wisdom has an almost feminist quality about it with the central theme of a girl who must learn confidence in herself as a young woman in a man’s world. A large part of me looks around at the women I see on the news, in society, and even living in my own house (after all, my wife is more educated and makes more money than I) and wonders if this message really has a place anymore. The unfortunate conclusion I come to is that while significant progress has occurred, more is still needed, and the young women in our society can benefit from a message that encourages them to succeed through being the young women that they are. While the feminism present isn’t what I’d consider radical or militant, I do find it interesting that some man-hate does seem to slip through the cracks. This is most evident in the relative lack of likeable male characters – there are essentially two, one is a trans-gender who lives as a woman and the other is a eunuch.
The Two Pearls of Wisdom is a relatively fast read that I rather enjoyed, suggesting that it does succeed as a cross-over between YA and adult-oriented fiction. The strong story telling and vivid setting largely overcome the weaknesses and annoyances that generally result from the consistent portrayal of a teenager. 7/10
Related Posts: Interview with Alison Goodman