The nice thing about reading books that were published earlier in the Cybils cycle is that sometimes the sequel is ready to read very shortly afterward! Here are a pair of Taiwanese-flavored fantasies, the first of which was one of my favorite Cybils nominees that didn’t make our finalist list.
Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien. Henry Holt, 2018.
Chen Peasprout (family name Chen, personal name Peasprout) and her younger brother Cricket have been sent as goodwill ambassadors from the empire of Shin to study at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword. Peasprout is the Peony Level Brightstar champion of wu liu, a fusion of ice skating and martial arts designed for women. Unfortunately, many of their fellow students are very suspicious – Shin has tried to take over Pearl in the past. Some of the few who are friendly are twins Doi – very serious, with long, shining hair – and her smiling, vegetarian brother Hisashi. They’re the children of the chair of New Deitsu, the company that makes the pearl for which Pearl was named – a substance that covers all the streets and floors of Pearl and allows people to use their skates everywhere.
Peasprout is determined to come first in all the school competitions, even if she doesn’t have the money or connections of the other students. When buildings start being vandalized and even destroyed, she’s sure that it’s her top rival, mean-spirited and suspicious Suki. She’s so suspicious of everyone that she doesn’t really believe that Cricket can be making friends or finding his own place.
Plot and character descriptions, though, don’t really do justice here. The world building is beautiful, balanced against a stubborn and prickly main character dedicated to filial piety as well as her own personal success. The language is worth noting, too, with flowery titles and exclamations like “make me drink sand to death” or “ten thousand years of stomach gas” that make it feel like reading directly translated idioms. Peasprout herself, though described as 14, felt a little younger to me, fitting well into middle grade literature. All of this fits into a story that’s packed with competitions and battles on ice skates that keep the story gliding along.
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien. Henry Holt, 2019.
Peasprout’s place at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword is still uncertain as book two opens. Her friendship with Doi and Hisashi was rattled by the events at the end of the previous book, and things are made even worse by the arrival of Wu Yinmei, the secret heir to the Dowager Empress of Shin. Even though Peasprout knows what it is to be under suspicion all the time, even though she’s from Shin herself, she’s come to love Pearl and is quite sure that Yinmei can’t be trusted.
As Pearl feels more pressure from Shin, all the various subjects the students had been studying are combined to make them ready for actual battle, complete with regular battle practices. Peasprout becomes the leader of her own battleband, which she accidentally sticks with the team name Nobody and the Fire Chickens – versus the much more serious names of groups lie Radiant Thousand-Story Very Tall Goddess. Mean girl Suki is now asking to be on her team, too – but can she really trust her? She still has some feelings for Hisashi, even though he’s definitely not the boy she thought he was at the beginning of book one. I just found her a little frustrating in this book, having so many of the same problems with trust that she did in the last book, even ones I thought she’d worked through.
The battle scenes were so vivid, though, I read several of them aloud to my son. I was definitely on board for Peasprout and her Fire Chickens to win the ever-increasing stakes, and I hope for more books in this series.