Book Cover: Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic

Welcome to the second week of the read-along for Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic (The Tale of Yin). Lovely Lynn of Little Lion Lynnet’s is our ringleader for this read-along, but I’m honoured to be hosting this week’s discussion. We’ll be reading for the next two weeks if you’d like to join us for The Path of Kindness.

If Sea of Waves got me all softened up and feeling fuzzy with its gentle handling of a young woman seizing her destiny and learning to trust her emotions, week 2 – well, it rather pulled the rug from under me as Mirra has her life turned upside-down. I found my emotions all over the place, getting quite anxious as the adorable Triad came under strain. Massive spoilers below.

 

Both Sea of Waves and Tree of Branches are very focused on character over action. Who were your favourites, and why?

I very much like Mirra herself. She has a resilience that I really admire, and I empathised with her desire to be Apart when she first arrived in the City and came to terms with what had happened to her and her separation from her roots. Mirra’s interactions with Fiona fascinated me – after our chat last week about compassion as a key theme in Sea of Waves, Mirra was still far kinder and more compassionate than I expected. As a story about hurting, healing and growing, this (both parts taken together) may be one of my favourites for some time.

The little vignettes of Farhadi (I could absolutely relate to him needing to have quiet time to himself to cope with all these people!) and Rakshya (so nurturing, and that gentle flirting with Mirra!) were also very easy to like. Oddly, Josh was one of my least favourite characters. I never really felt we got to know him, and I didn’t like his antagonism with Auri in Tree of Branches.

 

Auri was very determined to take the Triad inland after the eruption, even when others turned back to the City. Do you think she was right? What do you think was driving her away from the sea?

Honestly, this made no sense to me. Auri was so deeply connected to the sea (as was Mirra), that her insistence that they go inland seemed very alien. It was almost as though there was a whole other plot strand (if this were another book) about some thing or person or ancient tech or magical McGuffin that she knew about and wanted to find. But this isn’t that sort of book.

I half-wondered whether this was Auri’s coping mechanism: she was driven away from the sea, and she drives herself away from the City when the life she has made there is threatened. Did she deal with her losses by always looking forward, moving on? But… I don’t know. Perhaps she just wanted to get them to Josh’s family so that their daughter would grow up in a community? But this didn’t come across either, especially given her conflict with Josh (and no mention of finding Mirra’s family – even though Sea of Waves suggested they would be accepted). Nothing quite fits, so I’m looking forward to other perspectives!

I was initially comfortable that the strong bonds within the Triad offset my usual wariness about teacher/pupil power imbalances (especially given Auri saved Mirra’s life too), but I ended up wondering if I’d given it a pass too easily. Neither Josh nor Mirra wanted to go inland, but Auri’s insistence was pressure from the one person Mirra couldn’t say no to. I wasn’t clear whether Auri knew Mirra was pregnant, and whether that would have made a difference to her pushing Mirra to take the silver fish. SO MANY QUESTIONS. Sometimes I think I just fail at people, but really I just wanted to admire Auri more than I felt the text allowed me to.

 

What are your thoughts on the world now Mirra’s travels have taken us further afield?

I’m a big fan of world-building, so I have a not-particularly-secret love of story developments that take us travelling. While I was sad to see the City under threat (because exploring the City in more detail would have been interesting too!), I was fascinated to go inland.

That said, I both loved and was frustrated by what we discovered there – the caravansari and Little Lhasa had some wonderful detailing (the wishing tree! the greenhouses!), but I didn’t feel we got to know these places as well as we got to know the City in Sea of Waves. I don’t know if this is just a function of the City having districts and structure?

On the bigger picture, I loved the clues that hint people have been here many generations (although I suppose the knowledge that it had been 200 years since the volcano last erupted could be science rather than memory) and apparently by choice rather than crash-landed (although of course they may have been running out of fuel, or have found few planets with appropriate environments to settle on). Also, appendices FTW!

 

How did you interpret Mirra’s dreams?

I wasn’t sure what to think about Mirra’s early dream of her Ah-Ma. I loved that she had been so accepting of Mirra’s magic at the end of Sea of Waves, and I was fascinated that she made circles of light in Mirra’s dreams. The framing seemed to suggest that she was dead or dying, though, which made Mirra’s later dream of Auri particularly foreboding.

The wedding dream was both heartbreaking and beautiful. There are many ways that the mix of cultures are illustrated through the story, but the little details of the ceremony were exquisite in highlighting this and drawing out the affection within the Triad. Part of the grieving process, the later dreams of Auri were also signs of Mirra’s healing – especially the symbolism of the she-oak and Kindness.

 – – –

Chng has such a deft touch in Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic. I felt it was even clearer in Tree of Branches that the book is Mirra looking back, rather than Mirra’s experiences at the time. In spite of even more upheaval and emotional agony in this second part, that distance takes the sting out of the tale: it’s still very sad, but less immediate, no longer raw. It feels terribly wise, and made me wonder if the whole tale is Mirra telling her story to her daughter (before or after her birth).

One final thought: if Sea of Waves was about Mirra learning to stop armouring herself against her emotions, Tree of Branches is the battering she takes as a consequence of letting herself have feelings. Yet it ends on a hopeful note of returning home to make new beginnings. Talk about life-affirming. I’m a little bit in awe. Also need to go get something out of my eye. ‘Scuse me.