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Book Review


Dori Jones Yang, Daughter of Xanadu. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011. Pp. xv + 337 pp. ($ 17.99 paper; $17.99 e-book).


     It is not unusual for instructors to want to use a novel while teaching history. The difficulty is finding a novel that is not only set in the appropriate historical period, but is also useful. This is particularly difficult when attempting to find one for the Mongol Empire. A number of them have appeared in the past few years, such as those by Conn Iggulden, but often the authors, like Hollywood directors, do not allow history to get in the way of their plot. While Dori Jones Yang's Daughter of Xanadu falls into the same trap at times, in many ways it is more useful than other novels. Although intended for middle school girls, instructors at the high school and collegiate level may still find the book to be quite useful in their classrooms.

     With the intended audience being middle school girls, two major themes emerge: finding one's own identity and romance. Rather than taking a historical figure and then warping reality for the sake of plot, the author instead creates a plausible heroine--a granddaughter of Khubilai Khan. While the Mongol queens and princesses were major figures, we know very little about them. Indeed, as of the publication of this review, Jack Weatherford's Secret History of the Mongol Queens is the only book on the topic for either the general public or as a scholarly monograph. As a result from the lack of attention both by scholars but also by the sources themselves, which often omit the names of the royal women, the creation of Emmajin as the daughter of Khubilai Khan works very well. Furthermore, she serves as an excellent device to explore the world and empire of Khubilai Khan. As mentioned above, we know relatively little about the wives and daughters of the khans, so Yang ingeniously circumvents this by having the teenaged Emmajin dream of being a soldier in the Mongol army, thus engaging her in the military world of which we have many more details. This segment is plausible not only as the dream of a girl, but also because there are accounts of Mongol women fighting in the ranks of the Mongol army. Though rare, it still happened.

     As with world history textbooks, one cannot discuss Khubilai Khan without Marco Polo. The Venetian enters the book as the love interest, although at first she finds him quite detestable. Predictably, she finds herself drawn to him and eventually in love with the Italian merchant. While this section is conventional, it may be less so for students who are unaware of Marco Polo's role in history. This also offers the opportunity to explore the tensions of social class, religion, and ruler and subject. Furthermore, Yang mines Marco Polo's Travels for source material and uses Marco Polo as a storyteller, which endears him to Khubilai Khan. Furthermore, by using scenes from Travels the author is able to paint a vivid picture of the Mongol world, at least how Polo presents it. The scenes from Marco Polo's Travels also become scenes in the story, such as hunting dragons (crocodiles) and Khubilai Khan's four elephant palanquin. 

     There are some historical issues with the book, however. The Mongolian women and the Mongol court appears to be more Chinese than Mongolian. While we know Khubilai did present himself as a Chinese-style emperor, it was for the masses. For the Mongolians, he was a khan and acted so, although he had his critics. Aside from the depiction of Emmajin, the portrayal of Mongolian women and attitudes towards the royal women by Mongol men are anachronistic. 

     Nonetheless, the book is a 'good read' and can be useful in a class particularly if paired with Marco Polo's Travels. It would be advisable for the instructor to also perhaps read David Morgan's The Mongols and Morris Rossabi's Khubilai Khan for background. Although the author wrote a book for young girls, she succeeded in writing a historical novel that achieves her goal, but also presents a plot that will capture male interest as well. 

Timothy May is Department Head of History & Philosophy at North Georgia College & State University and the author of The Mongol Art of War (2007), Culture and Customs of Mongolia (2009), and The Mongol Conquests in World History (2011). He can be reached at

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