Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 13, 2024

Monday May 13, 2024: Maximum Shelf: A Song to Drown Rivers

St. Martin's Press: A Song to Drown Rivers by Ann Liang

 St. Martin's Press: A Song to Drown Rivers by Ann Liang

St. Martin's Press: A Song to Drown Rivers by Ann Liang

St. Martin's Press: A Song to Drown Rivers by Ann Liang

A Song to Drown Rivers

by Ann Liang

In A Song to Drown Rivers, a magnificently sweeping tale of legendary romance, Ann Liang retells the story of Xishi. A fabled beauty of the Yue Kingdom, Xishi poses as devoted concubine to the king of China's Wu Kingdom in a treacherous ploy to take revenge on the Wu and conquer them. It is a heartbreaking tale of the duplicities and brutalities of war, but one that illustrates the power of women to subvert the grasp of kings.

Xishi despises King Fuchai of the Wu Kingdom. His victory over her people in the Yue Kingdom ended with bloodshed, her sister murdered, her impoverished village in ruins. Daily, a grieving Xishi scrubs silk, fingers blistering, to support her shattered parents. "Sometimes it felt like that was all my life was, all it ever could be: the repetition of tasks necessary for survival until I grew older and my time expired." It is in this state that Xishi is approached by Fanli, the 22-year-old political and military adviser to King Goujian of Yue. Their king wishes to gift the lovely Xishi to Fuchai as a symbol of peace, yet the true plan is for Xishi to serve as spy--to earn Fuchai's love, distract him from his duties, and facilitate a Yue invasion of Wu. "The choice was this: a kingdom, or my happiness.... Happiness was a side dish.... But revenge--that was the salt of life. Necessary. Essential." She agrees.

Xishi is whisked from her home and thrust into training. She balks at the absurdity of traditional etiquette, at "hollow gestures" like not raising a wine glass higher than the king's and the expectation to chew food noiselessly. Deception techniques help her control the emotions worn on her face. Yet they do little to mask her attraction to Fanli: "What am I thinking at present?" she asks him. "You are thinking... of something you know you should not." Think of him she does, of his "mind sharper than blades and beauty finer than jade," of the "brutal map of scars" on his back, of how his presence is "warmth, safety, an anchoring."

To that anchor Xishi bids a sorrowful goodbye as she enters the Wu Kingdom, fully trained to deceive Fuchai. The king of Wu is "disturbingly handsome" with "the sharp, assertive features of a wolf" that require all her willpower not to destroy. This simmering rage is mildly satiated, at least, by rebuffing his initial advances in feigned disinterest, a ploy to build his desire for her. When finally she allows his touch, "his hands do not feel like a killer's hands," yet he "taste[s] like treachery." Xishi slinks into a special rapport with Fuchai--gaining access to a court meeting, hinting at ways to please her that in fact serve to weaken the Wu--that has "the truth buzz[ing] like a wasp in [her] stomach." She fears death if she slips--"like holding your neck out for an execution, not knowing exactly when the axe head would fall"--but what disturbs her more is the feeling of only half-pretending and being not as cold as she wanted to be. Forgiving Fuchai's wrongs is impossible; this lie of love, however, brings a guilt that threatens to break Xishi's already sorrow-stricken soul.

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." Liang then surrounds Xishi with a lush setting of "ponds and gardens, water and earth, fishing boats and floating lights," and feasts of "roasted lamb and glazed duck and sweet congee sprinkled with golden osmanthus flakes and goji berries." The juxtaposition isn't lost on Xishi, who in mournful cadence recalls "sleep[ing] earlier just to escape the pinch of hunger in our stomachs, the rationing of a single yellow millet bun into thirds, and then fourths, and then fifths."

Xishi speaks eloquently, too, of legend ("This is how the story goes; these are the roles we have chosen for ourselves") and the future she is generating ("History seemed to be holding its breath, gazing down upon us"), 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. Xishi's forbidden yearning for Fanli etches her heart: "When his gaze drifted lower, down to my nose and lips, there came a fierce rushing in my chest, like the howl of wind over a sheer cliff." Xishi knows, though, that these desires will see her the victim while cunning will carve a certain path to victory. 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. --Samantha Zaboski

St. Martin's Press, $32, hardcover, 336p., 9781250289469, October 1, 2024

St. Martin's Press: A Song to Drown Rivers by Ann Liang

Ann Liang: Playing Both Sides

Ann Liang
(photo: Alyssa Liang)

Ann Liang is the author of the bestselling, critically acclaimed YA novels This Time It's Real, If You Could See the Sun, and I Hope This Doesn't Find You. Born in Beijing, she grew up traveling back and forth between China and Australia, but somehow ended up with an American accent. She now lives in Melbourne, where she can be found making overambitious to‑do lists and having profound conversations with her pet labradoodle about who's a good dog. Her adult debut, A Song to Drown Rivers (St. Martin's Press, October 1, 2024), is an epic historical fantasy inspired by the legend of Xishi, one of the Four Beauties of China, who played a critical role posing as a concubine to the Wu king in an attempt to bring victory to her homeland of Yue.

What inspired you to use the legend of Xishi as inspiration?

I've heard tales of the Four Beauties my whole life, and my impression of Xishi was quite limited to the usual stories of how beautiful she was. But it was only the summer after I graduated college that I was reading random facts about Chinese history and went down this rabbit hole, as one does, and discovered there was so much more to Xishi's story than I knew. As a romance writer, I found myself particularly drawn to the dynamic between Xishi and Fanli, as well as the conflict between what we want and what we feel we should do, between selfish desire and the greater good. While in the modern day the stakes might not be quite as high as the fate of two kingdoms, I do think that's a struggle we can relate to.

Fanli meets Xishi by accident, even though she is why he came to her village. Why did you decide to make their first meeting organic?

It was really important to me that Fanli doesn't see Xishi's face at first, and that he doesn't know who she is. Many men have fallen for her primarily for her beauty, but since she's wearing a veil, Fanli's first impression of her is based purely on her actions.

Though their time together is brief, a deep understanding develops between Xishi and Fanli. How did you manage to instill this dynamic that persists even across the spans of time they spend apart?

This was definitely something I thought a lot about, because I knew I only had those first few chapters to establish the strong connection between Xishi and Fanli. I think their understanding comes through in the sense that they both have to wear masks around other people--Xishi as the perfect concubine, Fanli as the noble adviser. But when they're together, those masks come off, and they're able to be vulnerable around each other, which is extremely rare and dangerous in this kind of political setting, where any sign of vulnerability can very well get you killed.

It's a cliff's edge that Xishi must walk between being too dismissive of Fuchai and too interested. Was this difficult to write?

There were moments in earlier drafts when Xishi acted too interested, so it was something I had to balance out and consider during the revision process, essentially through trial and error (and by reading up on seduction techniques online, which was pretty eye-opening, to say the least). It is a razor-thin line to walk. I really paid attention to how the slightest change in dialogue or movement--say, her lightly grazing his arm versus her leaning all the way forward to touch his chest--might then shape Fuchai's response.

She must also come across as participating in gender roles she does not subscribe to.

Yes, it's one of her greatest struggles--having to play this part of the alluring concubine and constantly perform for the male gaze, saying and doing all these things she doesn't mean. Her entire mission hinges on whether she can make an extremely powerful man fall in love with her. I think that's something women struggle with even today, right? I know for me, there have been moments where I've been conscious and critical of my own participation in these gender roles--for instance, by dressing a certain way to gain the attention or approval of a certain kind of person. I haven't figured out a way around it, and so I channelled those frustrations into Xishi.

You've also done a spectacular job of avoiding the "not like other girls" trope while still empowering Xishi.

Thank you! I try not to put too much pressure on the fact that I'm crafting a female character. I just want to write a character who feels human and real, and so that means giving her--and giving myself, during the drafting process--the freedom to be flawed, to be selfish at times, to be vain or scared or cruel. In writing Xishi, I really wanted to show that you can dream of love and a kingdom, and you can be proud of your beauty and also feel used because of it.

Much of what Xishi does, in fact, seems fueled by her distaste for how men hold an absurd amount of power.

That's part of the tragedy of it; she craves power because these men have proven how easy it is to ruin the lives of those without it. Xishi's motivation to enter the court is hardened and sharpened by her anger toward these men. Yet even as she inches closer and closer to the throne, her fate remains tied to the wills of kings and the very men she resents.  

There is a difference, as Xishi says, between strength on the battlefield and in court. What was it like writing both of these?

Both require a certain kind of choreography. With the descriptions of battles and brute force, I really wanted to capture the feeling of it--the atmosphere, the sensations, the rhythm--not just the exact placements of the hands and feet and weapons. Writing about battles of the mind is like a chess game. You have to carefully think over every move and the consequences of them, except you have to play both sides at the same time, and you know where the pieces need to end up but not how to get them there.

What books or other media were your touchstones or biggest influences?

Whether it was in terms of tone or visuals or plot devices, I was heavily inspired by historical C-dramas--I'm talking about those 60-episode dramas where people gaze wistfully at each other across a court and stare out at the falling snow and come up with many metaphors about tea. Those dramas usually end in tragedy, but it's the kind of tragedy that hurts in a good way; it's cathartic and it's beautiful and it stays with you for a long time afterwards.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

This book was born out of my love for Chinese history, and so I hope that regardless of their level of familiarity with the legend of Xishi, readers might be interested in uncovering even more tales from that time period. It truly is so fascinating, and as a former history student, I really do believe there's so much we can learn from the past. --Samantha Zaboski

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