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The Mermaid’s Muse: The Legend of the Dragon Boats

by David Bouchard, Zhong-Yang Huang, illus.

The Mermaid’s Muse crowns Raincoast’s Chinese Legends trilogy, the teamwork of writer David Bouchard and illustrator Zhong-Yang Huang. Unfortunately, the latter’s luminous oil paintings outshine the text as the sun does a candle.

Dominated by the contemplative conversations of the protagonists, the story is unlikely to appeal to small children. A sea-dragon overhears Qu Yuan, an exiled poet, reciting, and falls in love with him. Appearing as a beautiful mermaid, the dragon invites the enamoured poet to its home under the sea. Transforming into a dragon boat, the creature carries off Qu Yuan. The islanders, fearing for the bard’s life, attack from fishing vessels. Qu Yuan metamorphoses into a dragon to defend his love, and the couple disappear into the twilight.

Bouchard frames this legend with the story of a modern grandmother giving her grandson a carving of the dragon boat for his birthday. The formal diction of the grandmother and grandson results in unbelievable dialogue. The boy says: “I’m sorry, Grandmother. It’s just that dragons frighten me so.” This wooden language is especially jarring when the illustrator descends to brand-endorsing to present the boy as contemporary: a Ronald McDonald doll and Rubik’s cube mar the final illustration.

Even in the legend itself, the writing style is unconvincing. China’s great ancient bard spouts Hallmark card verse (“a friend … who makes me feel I’m special”), and this is after days of thinking, meditating, and writing. Banal sentimentality creeps in everywhere: “dragons … are the loss of something dear, the fear of an abandoned puppy….” But while the text generally misfires, the Impressionistic pictures will ignite readers.