The Scroll of Chaos
The Scroll of Chaos
Everything inside me seems to collapse. It’s the yao grass – it must be all used up. My lion mask slips off and floats away, dissolving as it goes. My red cloak disappears from around my body. The ground shudders as the lone nian gets closer.
Keep playing! I yell at myself. You made the air shimmer all on your own when you played for the guards! What if doing that is just another form of power?
My fingers on the keys tremble, but just once. I ignore the growing pinched feeling and dive into the solo part of the song.
The genre of fantasy literature has a long history extending back to the publication in 1841 of John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, a book which many literary critics consider to be the beginning of modern fantasy. Since then, numerous fantasy stories have been written for readers of all ages, including such well-known classics as the “Lord of the Rings” and “Chronicles of Narnia”. In more recent years, stories from diverse contexts and inclusion of characters from diverse backgrounds have become more prominent in contemporary works of literature, both for adults and young audiences.
With the growth in young adult novels that focus on Asian themes, narratives, and protagonists, Elsie Chapman’s latest young adult novel, The Scroll of Chaos, offers a welcome addition to the existing literature and will attract readers from a wide range of backgrounds. Featuring a strong Asian female protagonist, Chapman’s novel is an intriguing addition to the genre as it re-envisions the classic struggle between good and evil for a contemporary Canadian context that connects with its Asian communities. In the narrative, protagonist Astrid Xu must embark on a quest to prevent an ancient evil known as Chaos from taking over the mythological world of Zhen. Its engaging narrative unfolds in an otherworldly realm that is informed by Chinese mythology.
The story opens with Astrid Xu’s being concerned about her mother’s depression. Feeling helpless about the whole situation, Astrid wishes that she could do something to help her mother and get things back to how they used to be. Astrid’s coming across an ancient scroll and inadvertently breaking the seal sets a prophecy in motion that places the mythological world of Zhen, as well as her own world, in jeopardy. However, according to the prophecy, Astrid is the only person who can save Zhen as she is the one who has opened the scroll. During her quest, Astrid journeys with some Chinese mythological figures who assist her with reaching Kunlun Mountain where a final confrontation with Chaos will occur. These figures include Erlang Shen, China’s most powerful warrior, and Lan Caihe of the Eight Immortals, also known as Sae.
The Scroll of Chaos distinguishes itself from other young adult works because of its culturally specific references and incorporation of Chinese mythology as important parts of the narrative’s progression and eventual resolution. Drawing upon the traditional quest narrative trope, Chapman incorporates contemporary and culturally specific references to construct an original and engaging narrative that also touches on the psychological impact of mental illness. This issue has gained visibility through contemporary discussions of mental health and realistic portrayals of this condition in popular culture. Readers might be unfamiliar with some of its specific references to Chinese culture and mythology, and some may not necessarily know someone with mental illness. Nevertheless, Chapman develops Astrid as a sympathetic character with whom readers can relate; they can still appreciate the struggles that Astrid experiences throughout the story with respect to her self-doubt, fear, and concern for her ill mother whom she wants to save at all costs.
Although the novel is a more plot-driven narrative that is typical of quest-oriented works, another important dimension is Astrid’s internal struggles around her mother’s depression. Her preoccupation with her mother’s condition is shown from the beginning of the novel and persists throughout her quest as she considers doing something ethically questionable to save her mother. At the same time, Astrid struggles with that action even though it is motivated by good intentions. Here, the fantasy genre can facilitate the poignant exploration of ethical dilemmas and allow characters to wrestle with these issues in a different context, all of which can then serve as a mirror of our contemporary context and prompt readers to reflect upon those issues.
Chapman’s novel shares some similarities with Xiran Jay Zhao’s Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor (www.cmreviews.ca/node/3022). Like Chapman, Zhao incorporates Chinese mythology and creates a compelling action-adventure narrative in which the main protagonist is destined to be the only one who can save the world. In both novels, the main protagonists find themselves unexpectedly in unfamiliar circumstances that are outside of their comfort zone, learn about what they are intended to do, and eventually accept the task that has been offered to each of them. Initially, these protagonists are both hesitant and reluctant to accept the task, but their desire to save their mothers prompts them to do so. Their respective quests to save the world are each fraught with danger and uncertainty through which each of them prevails by trusting in their own internal strength, resolve, and abilities as well as by receiving assistance from their travel companions.
However, one significant difference between these two novels is that Zhao’s narrative takes place in the context of the protagonist’s contemporary society whereas Chapman’s narrative occurs in a mythological realm that Astrid enters through a magical portal—although the outcome of Chao’s infiltration of that realm is expected to eventually impact Astrid’s own world back home. Another difference between these works is each protagonist’s motivation for going on the quest. In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the main protagonist Zack embarks on his quest because its failure will cause his mother’s spirit to be lost forever. In The Scroll of Chaos, the quest’s failure would not have direct consequences upon Astrid’s mother. Instead, she goes on the quest because of what she could gain to save her mother. Erlang and Sae persuade Astrid that, if she helps them to save the realm of Zhen, she could get the opportunity to request a magical plant from the Queen Mother of the West’s sacred garden to save her mother.
During the story, Astrid harbours continual doubts about her own ability to defeat the demon of Chaos. Reflecting on her current situation, Astrid considers, “I think about how I have to fight the demon. I mean, what kind of realm-saving hero has asthma, anyway?” (p. 117). Initially, she harbours misgivings about joining Erlang and Sae, but she matures and gains self-confidence over the course of their journey. Fighting through her feelings of trepidation and self-doubt, Astrid comes to believe that she can defeat Chaos and restore order to the world of Zhen
One aspect of The Scroll of Chaos that might be improved is the final encounter between Astrid and Chaos. With the entire narrative’s progression building up to that moment, the last battle may feel a bit anticlimactic as Chaos is defeated fairly quickly. Although this book is for younger readers, the actual battle scene might be conveyed with more tension and drama so that Chaos’ defeat would feel more satisfying for readers. Perhaps this final encounter could evoke more of a high-stakes feel and sense of danger, similar to the appearance of Chaos earlier in the novel when it pervaded Astrid’s dreams. In that earlier scene, Chaos is evoked as a sinister and threatening being with immense power whereas the final battle does not seem to convey the same level of dramatic impact. Nevertheless, the final battle does provide a satisfying resolution in terms of Astrid’s character development. Because readers have seen Astrid grow throughout her journey, it is satisfying to see Astrid draw upon her inner strength, ability, and newfound confidence to defeat Chaos.
Ultimately, Astrid’s journey comes to represent both a victory over evil as well as an acceptance of the challenges that she faces in her personal life. Astrid learns to accept that there are things that she cannot fully control the outcome of, such as what will happen with her mother’s illness. Realizing that there is no quick fix for resolving her mother’s condition, she acknowledges that it is not possible to return to how things are prior to her mother’s illness. Instead, she will have to cope with her mother’s depression over the long term, so the best thing that she can do is to be there for her mother.
Besides accepting the reality of her mother’s depression, her relationship with her sister Marilla improves as it becomes necessary for them to work together to defeat Chaos. Through their shared struggles and experiences, Astrid and Marilla come to better understand each other and develop a more positive relationship based on mutual support and trust. Astrid realizes that she does not have to deal with her mother’s depression alone. Although her mother will experience good and bad days, it will be easier to cope with the support of her sister.
The book’s language level is appropriate for its audience and does not contain overly complicated terminology that may hinder the ability of younger readers to appreciate and enjoy the story. However, it may be useful for readers to have access to informational resources that they could consult for the novel’s specific references to Chinese culture since it will enhance their understanding and appreciation of the story.
As a pedagogical tool, The Scroll of Chaos can provide ample opportunity for stimulating discussion and study around the significance of mythology in different world cultures. For example, teachers could raise questions such as the extent to which mythologies inform people’s understanding of their surroundings, provide a cohesive worldview, function as a means for disseminating values and beliefs, and so on. Teachers could also consider using this book as a way to prompt discussions about family dynamics, including parent-child and sibling relationships as well as the debilitating impact of long-term illnesses upon those family relationships.
Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, British Columbia and currently lives in Toronto, Ontario. She has a degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia. Co-editor of Hungry Hearts and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, Chapman is also the author of several young adult works, including the dystopian duology Dualed and Divided, Along the Indigo, Caster, and Spell Starter. Her work has also appeared in anthologies such as Sangu Mandanna’s Color Outside the Lines. For more information about Elsie Chapman, visit her official website https://elsiechapman.com/.
The Scroll of Chaos would be a valuable addition for libraries that would like to increase its representation of literature published in Canada and the United States that features diverse cultural perspectives, experiences, and stories.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. A resident of Edmonton, Alberta, he enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.