This review was originally posted on Medium.
Genie worries about what many teenagers do at 16 – getting good grades, getting into a good college, being a good friend – then one day a new guy lands on her desk proclaiming that he’s a god and that she belongs to him (seriously).Turns out this stranger truly is a god, the Monkey King from Chinese lore to be exact, and that he and Genie used to fight alongside each other in a past life. Genie initially receives this information just like anyone else would, with confusion and denial. Yet as she and Quentin, the Monkey King, are faced with more and more challenges, she begins to rise to the occasion, proving that she is indeed a fighter.
The plot thickens when Genie has to confront her own prejudices and insecurities about her parents and the judgment she perceives from her classmates as one of the tallest, least confident kids in class. Genie’s relationship with her mother is characterized by the usual mother-daughter misunderstandings, as an only child, Genie wishes that her mother had someone else to focus her attentions on; while Genie’s mother pushes her to live up to her best friend’s example. There are also some moments when Genie’s mother’s internalizes sexism and holds her daughter to gendered standards, such as when she suggests that Genie could be softer, shouldn’t be so tall, and goes out of her way to defend Quentin over her own daughter, despite only knowing him for a few hours. Genie and her mother lead a lower-middle class lifestyle in a suburb of San Francisco and Genie’s mother greatly admires people who are financially successful, like Quentin’s parents. This is understandable until Genie’s mom reveres their success to the point of pushing Genie to try to lock Quentin into marriage at 16! Thankfully, Genie is very good at holding onto her own morals and remains guarded against Quentin’s domineering ways and her mother’s ‘perfect daughter’ fantasies.
While her strong will is evident in her resistance to most of the societal constructs around relationships and marriage, Genie also holds some strange views on sexual accountability and wealth (or the lack of). The former is demonstrated when her mother allows Quentin to go up to her room before dinner with his parents and his mother catches him in a state of undress in front of Genie. Genie’s initial reaction is to feel as if she is at fault somehow (which admittedly, most girls are taught to feel in these situations). She’s shocked to see Quentin’s mother punish him for his behavior instead of her and openly apologize to both Genie and her mother for this act. Her understanding of how people should be treated because of their economic status is as skewed as you could expect from a teenager learning the ways of the world, being taught to revere people with money. We also learn later that the father that she often puts out of her mind and is reluctant to talk about is not dead or distant but rather is a low wage worker at a gym in San Francisco. Genie actually had a good relationship with her father until he lost his job in her hometown and her parents divorced. She could still have a great relationship with her father at this stage but she is too ashamed to see him often or even talk to her friends about him. In addition to this, Genie is obsessed with getting into an Ivy League school on the East Coast and travels to San Francisco almost weekly to meet with an admissions coach, yet still feels inadequate in comparison to wealthier, white peers. Most of this behavior is tied into what she and society consider success and her time with Quentin helps her to resolve some of these issues.
In fact, one of the themes that I liked most about the book was that power dynamics are scrutinized and reprocessed by Genie because of her observant and justice-seeking nature. After Quentin reveals his true identity as the Monkey King, Genie becomes curious about his mythology and is stricken by how unfairly he was treated by the other Chinese gods. When they begin to battle evil spirits she learns that they are able to level up in the same ways that she and gods can, by working out and building up their magical abilities. This observation is central to her growth personally and as a fighter because she learns to question traditions, gender roles, and power, which in turn leads her to become better at putting matters, like why she truly wishes to escape her small-town life, into perspective. These are lessons that young adults are prone to learn as they step into the world and build a sense of self. For these insights into the human condition and the mystery around her specials powers, I recommend this book for readers who are into learning the mythology of other cultures and questioning tradition and systemic oppression. In a world of prominent, woke teenagers, it’s refreshing to accompany one on her journey to woke-ness.