Book Review: “The Crystal Ribbon” by Celeste Lim

The Crystal Ribbon chronicles the life of 11-year-old Jing after her aunt sells her in marriage to a cruel family. Jing’s husband is only three years old, and Jing is expected to be both his nursemaid and the family’s servant. She knows her destiny lies somewhere else – and hopes that benevolent spirits known as jing can help her find it.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book, so I’ll start with everything I really liked about it. For one, the cover is beautiful. It’s what’s inside that really counts, of course, but a good cover can never hurt! I also thought author Celeste Lim’s writing style was very compelling and easy to read – the story zips along in no time at all. Even though Jing’s story is technically set in the 12th century, Lim primarily uses present-day diction (there aren’t any iPhones, of course – but there is an Aunt Sadist), which makes the far-distant past accessible to young readers. I also really enjoyed the magical elements of the story. Jing’s story shines the most when she encounters supernatural beings, like the golden fox, who is the guardian of her village, or the evil tree, who is poisoning an entire village with tainted fruit.

I was distracted, however, by Lim’s trouble in deciding what age audience she wanted to write for. Jing is 11 when the story begins, and, as already mentioned, the prose is simplified and very readable. By the book’s end, she is almost 14. But more than her age, it’s the weird maturity of the content that would make me hesitate before handing this book to a nine- or ten-year-old. Not only are there a couple of truly gruesome parts (one including the sacrifice of two young children, which is mentioned but thankfully not narrated), but Jing also spends about a fourth of the book living as a courtesan. It’s weirdly loaded with sexual content without ever mentioning sex – Jing knows what courtesans do, but the text always shies away from telling the reader.

At one point, she’s afraid because an older man insists on paying for her company for the night even though she’s underage and hasn’t yet been trained. Jing’s fear in this moment is very weighted, and it’s weird for the text not to acknowledge the source of it – that she fears being raped. It’s as if the book wants to have the courtesan plotline but hopes that by never directly addressing the source of Jing’s fear and unhappiness, it can maintain its standing as a middle-grade novel. It didn’t really work for me. I could see two versions of the book I would have liked better – either the middle-grade version, which skips the courtesan stuff entirely (I didn’t see it as necessary to the story), or the YA version, which gives validation to Jing’s fear and the exploitation she’ll face if she doesn’t escape.

Overall, I thought The Crystal Ribbon was okay, but its inability to decide what age it’s written for kept me from really loving it. I am looking forward to seeing what Lim’s future books are like – she clearly has a lot of talent.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.