by Mary Fan
read the full synopsis.
When a powerful viceroy arrives with a fleet of mechanical dragons and stops an attack on Anlei’s village, the villagers see him as a godsend. They agree to give him their sacred, enchanted River Pearl in exchange for permanent protection—if he’ll marry one of the village girls to solidify the alliance. Anlei is appalled when the viceroy selects her as a bride, but with the fate of her people at stake, she sees no choice but to consent. Anlei’s noble plans are sent into a tailspin, however, when a young thief steals the River Pearl for himself.
Knowing the viceroy won’t protect her village without the jewel, she takes matters into her own hands. But once she catches the thief, she discovers he needs the pearl just as much as she does. The two embark on an epic quest across the land and into the Courts of Hell, taking Anlei on a journey that reveals more is at stake than she could have ever imagined.
With incredibly vivid world building and fast-paced storytelling, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is great for readers who are looking for something fresh in epic fantasy.
CHINESE-INSPIRED FANTASY WITH A REFRESHING TAKE ON WELL-LOVED TROPES
If I’m being honest, I barely know anything about Chinese history (needless to say, that Asian history class I had in high school was a huge scam), but when I learned that Mary Fan’s latest novel was going to be set in a fantasy world that’s essentially a steampunk Qing-dynasty China interlaced with Chinese mythology? I was beyond sold – and when the stars in Heaven perfectly aligned and the universe granted me an early copy of Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon (courtesy of the kind folks in Page Street Kids), I was admittedly a bit worried that I was expecting too much. Thankfully, my worries were all in vain because THIS BOOK DELIVERED ME FROM EVIL AMEN.
For the first few chapters, I found the characters to be a little too trope-y, namely, “tough cookie” female and arrogant love interest. However, as I continued reading, I began to see them in a new, more positive light. The little complexities in their characters, particularly their individual motivations and desires, allowed them to break out of their trope-y molds, which I really appreciated.
🌻 Anlei – Dyslexic* acrobat warrior heroine unashamedly seeking glory and vengeance. A fierce and fiery girl who isn’t just aware of her own agency but also makes it known that no one and nothing can stand in her way. 10/10 terrifying and empowering. I would not dare to piss her off.
🌻 Tai – Arrogant, smirking thief with a heart of gold. Likes to use humor and laughter as coping mechanisms. Messed up in ways that will tug at heartstrings. Definitely more than what meets the eye.
* I reached out to the author (via DM) to confirm that Anlei has dyslexia. Her reply was, and I quote, “Yes she does! And of course you can disclose it 😊”
The way I see it, Anlei’s character aims to subvert the harmful stereotypical image of meek, quiet, submissive Asian women – which I completely commend. It really warmed my heart to have an Asian heroine who is quick to call out injustices, who is unapologetically driven by her ambitions, and who is determined to lead her own story. I also enjoyed witnessing Anlei make selfless sacrifices for her family and for her community, and own up to her desire of wanting glory for herself as well.
My new title might be Lady, but even after they scrub me clean, paint my face, and clothe me in silk, I’ll still be little more than a slave.
INCREDIBLY UNIQUE WORLD-BUILDING & ENDLESSLY FASCINATING ELEMENTS (FT. MECHANICAL DRAGONS & ANGRY SWORD-WIELDING BRIDES)
Right from the get-go, I was hurled into – not introduced but – hurled into an incredibly unique world where steampunk technology collides with ancient magic, Chinese lore, and uncommon supernatural creatures. Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon did not take a pause to ease me into its larger-than-life setting, nor did it hold my hand and spoon-feed me information. And I loved it! I loved how bold and unapologetic the approach was in showing me the fantastical world Mary Fan constructed. Admittedly, the learning curve was quite steep, but the payoff was well beyond what I anticipated.
Furthermore, I also immediately observed that the writing style in this stand-alone novel is not meant to cater to the whims of a Western audience. Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is lovingly sprinkled with in-text Mandarin words and dialogue that were never directly translated but (in my opinion) provided enough context for its gist to be understood. My Chinese heritage is pretty far removed (I’m talking like great-great-great grandmother far), but encountering bits of Mandarin in this story made my fragile heart flutter in appreciation. I’m sure seeing their own language in a proudly Chinese fantasy would mean so much to a lot of Chinese readers!
Aside from the incomparable uniqueness of its setting, I found it fascinating how the story’s world is caught between ages of tradition and of modern advancement, which creates an interesting mix of societal views and norms. Specifically, it is progressive in some ways but ultimately continues to latch onto patriarchal values perpetuated by the existing culture. For instance, Anlei’s village allows women to serve as their warriors, but later on, their leader agrees to Anlei being sold off as the Viceroy’s bride in exchange for his protection. I think this type of society can be paralleled to numerous real-life civilizations that are present today. As an example, the Philippines is working towards advancement; however, it is still rooted in its worldview (e.g. gender roles) due to its conservative culture.
I am also extremely happy to note that Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is a brave and thoughtful commentary on poverty, privilege, social issues, and corruption. With a heroine hailing from a poor village that’s often overlooked by its government, this book portrays poverty in a nuanced way that leaves no room for romanticization or glamorization. More importantly, it depicts harsh truths that need to be addressed: the helplessness of poor communities (e.g. their inability to bite the hand that feeds them), literacy and education as inaccessible privileges, and how politics and the self-interests of those in power contribute to class oppression.
Moreover, the story carefully delves into filial piety, tradition, duty and obligation – themes that are inherently significant to Chinese culture, as well as to some other Asian cultures. I particularly loved the strong family themes and the complexities that come with them.
I don’t think I’m really exaggerating when I say that the steampunk and fantasy elements in this book totally blew me away and I still haven’t fully recovered! Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon features pure spiritual beings (yueshen), cursed spirit abominations (ligui), demons from literal Hell, cyborg soldiers, and mechanical dragons – and I loved how these creatures were incorporated into this fantastical world. Absolutely brilliant is all I can say, to be honest.
Truly, from angry sword-wielding brides to magical pearls gifted by ancient dragons, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon seems to have an endless list of fascinating elements. It has so many wonderfully inventive things to offer! A lot of the time, I felt overwhelmed by everything in the most wondrous way.
However, in introducing too many things and in trying to achieve too many things, the story had a few minor downfalls. First, although the world-building is far from being underdeveloped, I did feel that its exploration barely scratched the surface of its setting, its society, and the supernatural creatures that populate it. Second, I also found the antagonist to be quite unimpressive and shallow. Specifically, I was introduced to a power-hungry villain, but the motivation behind his lust for power was left up in the air. And finally, there were a couple of vague, open-ended scenes that created questions, which were neither answered nor addressed. In fact, there was one scene (big spoiler:
the Viceroy literally being dragged to hell) that confused me so much that I sent a message to the author for clarification.
Nonetheless, these shortcomings are quite minor in comparison to the unparalleled gloriousness that Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon has to offer its readers. Additionally, I believe that stand-alone fantasy novels are more significantly constrained in terms of depth and detail, which is why minor flaws are understandable, if not, inevitable. Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon remains to be one of the most memorable, inventive, and unique fantasy stand-alone books I’ve ever read.
BRILLIANT SUBVERSION OF THE TRADITIONAL HERO’S JOURNEY
In the beginning, Anlei agrees to accompany Tai in his endeavor to travel to the Courts of Hell and to save his people. All throughout this journey, it is made evidently clear that Anlei is displeased with falling into the role of being his sidekick. She constantly yearns to take charge of her narrative, to pioneer her own destiny, and ultimately, to escape a fate determined for her by other people. When I browsed through a few reviews, I observed that some commented on how it was odd that the story’s synopsis is completed midway through the book, only to be replaced with another arc. While I understand how unconventional this approach is, I personally saw it as a very refreshing and empowering twist. For me, it is a pivotal, character-defining moment wherein Anlei finally reclaims her agency, sets off on her own journey, and begins to write HER story.
At its heart, the plot is about an unlikely hero embarking on a dangerous quest – in this case, literal Hell – for a noble cause. However, it’s also so much more than that. As a whole, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is a brilliantly written subversion of the traditional hero’s journey. It is a heartfelt ode to family and to valuing one’s roots (which are typical aspects of a hero’s journey), but it also sparks a thoughtful discourse regarding fighting in the name of nobility and pursuing a cause for the sake of glory. It follows the adventure a hero undergoes to singlehandedly save his loved ones, but it also depicts the necessity of overthrowing a powerful, corrupted system through collective efforts. Most importantly, it is about encouraging women to reclaim their stories and to lead their own adventures.
Admittedly, my love for Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is a rather complicated one. While I did enjoy reading the story, I didn’t feel all too strongly about it. It was actually while I began exchanging thoughts and sharing insights with Alyssa (whom I buddy read this literary gem with) that I grew to appreciate this book a lot more. My theory is that Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon packed too hard of a punch that it took a while for my (hilariously) few brain cells to register its impact (oof). Nonetheless, with a wildly imaginative world where steampunk technology and magic collide and a complex plot that will keep you guessing, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon certainly makes for a challenging read — but with that challenge comes a truly rewarding experience.
* I received a physical ARC of Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon from Page Street Kids in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes used in this review are subject to changes in the published copy.
Click to read the content and trigger warnings.
Violence; torture; imprisonment; death; death of a parent
Pin this post on Pinterest!
You can share this post on other social media platforms, too — check out the buttons at the bottom of this post.
If you really enjoy my content, maybe consider using my purchase links to buy yourself a copy of the book (this will help me at no additional cost to you!) or consider supporting me with a cup of coffee!
I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Belated happy book birthday to Mary Fan’s Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon! Are you planning to pick this one up soon? (I think you should!)
🌻 Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is a stand-alone novel, which, I think, is quite rare in the fantasy genre. Have you read any stand-alone fantasy books recently? Do you have any recommendations for me?
🌻 Before I forget, this beautiful gem of a book totally counts for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – have you signed up? If you have, how’s your progress going?