Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien
Peasprout Chen and her little brother Cricket have been chosen by the dowager empress to represent their province at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword in the famously beautiful city of Pearl. In exchange, the mayor of Pearl has sent two of his children to Shin, the poor rural area where Peasprout and Cricket grew up.
The Chen siblings were chosen because Peasprout is the best wu liu competitor in her entire province. She’s a celebrity there. But when Peasprout arrives at their new school, her classmates are not impressed. Right away, Peasprout and Cricket don’t fit in. They don’t have fashionable clothes or extra skates. Peasprout sets out to prove herself as the best in her class while she tries to protect her little brother, not nearly as accomplished in the martial art, from bullies.
Peasprout is a great skater, but she’s at a major disadvantage without the right gear and training. What makes things worse is that most of the students are prejudiced against her because she comes from a different region. When someone starts vandalizing some of the beautiful campus buildings, suspicion falls on Peasprout. And when there are rumors that the dowager empress may not be properly upholding her end of the trade agreement, Peasprout’s situation gets worse. They think she’s a spy! To clear her name, she needs to find and expose the real vandal.
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword (2018), the first book in Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN series, is a book I probably never would have picked up if it wasn’t a finalist for a Nebula Award this year (specifically, the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy). This was not on my radar at all, but I’m glad I got a chance to read this charming and quirky story, especially in the lovely audio edition narrated by Nancy Wu (Macmillan Audio).
In some ways, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword is similar to other boarding school fantasies such as HARRY POTTER. Our protagonist is an outsider who struggles to fit into a school culture that is totally foreign and to prove that she belongs. Like Harry, Peasprout finds that classism, prejudice, and suspicion are more difficult to overcome than the actual curriculum.
What’s unique about PEASPROUT CHEN is the setting — a grand Asian-inspired city made of a strange secret substance called Pearl — and the odd sport called wu liu — a form of kung fu on ice skates (which can glide on the Pearl). Instead of magic, the competitor must learn to master the flow of chi. It’s hard to imagine children being trained in brutal combat ice skating, but if you can just go with it, it makes for some very exciting fight scenes and would absolutely make a great anime film. Many other little oddities (such as a bizarre banquet, a disastrous group project, some shocking animal cruelty, a skating wardrobe malfunction, and a hyperactive oracular monkey with a meat cleaver) are there to remind you that you are not reading HARRY POTTER. There is also (spoiler, so highlight if you want to read it): a genderqueer main character. (End Spoiler)
It’s easy to sympathize with Peasprout’s plight, but it’s not always easy to love her. She is arrogant, boastful, and proud. She always thinks she’s right. By the end of the novel, she begins to understand that she has some misconceptions. I like what Henry Lien did with her character. I like that he doesn’t just fix her at the end. Peasprout is young and she still has a long way to go. I’m interested to see what happens to her next in Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, especially after that wicked twist and cliffhanger!
Update: Thank you to author Henry Lien for sending a link to the Peasprout Chen theme song. Here he is with singer Idina Menzel: