A new woman-led YA adventure based on East Asian mythology

Miuko, the protagonist of Traci Chee’s new novel “A Thousand Steps Into Night,” is just a servant girl in a poor, nearly deserted town when she is caught outside at dusk — a dangerous time of day when mythological creatures freely roam the human world . Cursed to become a shaohaa demon of death, and exiled from the only home she has ever known, Miuko takes on a quest to restore herself to her human body and comes to befriend spirits, priests and folk creatures alike.

The crowning achievement of “A Thousand Steps Into Night” is its worldbuilding. Heavily drawing inspiration from Japanese mythology, Chee develops a catalog of demons, gods and other mythical creatures that populate the fictional nation of Awara. Each new reference to one of these characters is supplemented by a footnote explaining the etymology of their name, their origin, their character traits and their role in Awara’s mythology. In doing so, Chee constructs not just an entire religion, but an Awaran language — similar to Japanese in regards to the letters and vowel-consonant patterns used, but wholly unique in meaning. It’s an excellent addition that makes the story seem just that little bit more real. It’s subtle, but important.

Chee also takes great care to construct a compelling internal dialogue within Miuko. This dialogue carries the story through the book’s substantial number of action scenes and keeps them engaging and relevant. At times, the story can start to slide into the trap of conflict just for the sake of conflict, action just for the sake of action. But the quick pace, matched with Miuko’s strong personality of hers, prevent it from dragging. She does not just witness the events unfold, but comments with wit and feeling. Embedded into this narrative is an underlying premise of women’s empowerment, a rebellion against a society that denies girls and women access to free movement, education and many other rights. Included too is the budding class consciousness of a servant girl finally able to act on her own terms. These elements, though not particularly nuanced or thought-provoking, add an additional layer of meaning and emotional investment in Miuko’s quest for her.

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