Gateway, by Sharon Shinn (Penuin, October 2009, YA, 280 pages).
The black jade ring is the first sign that something strange has entered Daiyu's life. The old woman selling jewelry at the St. Louis fair insists is made for her, and even though she doesn't really want a ring, the next day finds her buying it. When it is on her finger, and she walks through the Gateway Arch that her city is famous for, her world changes. Literally.
Daiyu finds herself in a parallel world, one in which the Han colonized America. For the first time in her life as a Chinese girl adopted by white Americans, she's one of the powerful majority. And she's young and beautiful--just the right sort of person to pose as a debutante and get close to the governor of this other place. Just the right person to send him off into yet another dimension...where he can be brought to trial for crimes against humanity. At least, that's what the two people who planned her journey hope.
These two people say the man posing as governor is an evil infiltrator from yet another dimension, and they give Daiyu a talisman that will send him off to a place where he will be held accountable. Or so they say. Daiyu isn't sure she trusts them, but she does trust their handsome young associate, a poor white boy named Kalen whom they have taken in. And it seems like cooperating might be her best chance to get home again.
Soon she is playing the role of a wealthy young woman, learning the social conventions of the Han, and learning more about the "evil" dictator, who is a charismatic leader, seemingly beloved by (most) of the people he rules. Happiness comes from stolen meetings with Kalen--they can't meet openly, because he is of the white underclass, and she is Han, but still they find ways to see each other. But the more she learns of this different world, the greater the danger in which she, and Kalen, find themselves in...not just on the political intrigue side of things with its potentially fatal implications. Because Kalen and Daiyu are in very great danger of falling in love, and Daiyu must eventually go home again....
Shinn has done some lovely worldbuilding here--nicely imagined and nicely detailed (in both the modern and the archaic sense of "nice"). And against this backdrop, the twin stories of love and intrigue play out beautifully. Shinn keeps the reader firmly centered in Daiyu's point of view, so that we understand things as she does. At the same time, she does an excellent job balancing Daiyu's emotions and reactions with the external plot, so that it all moves along most swingingly.
But all that good stuff aside, what I really appreciated is that the crux of the whole matter is whether Daiyu will find enough evidence of the governor's character to decide, For Herself, if he is a bad guy or not. She doesn't have to master an obscure martial art, or develop magical powers--instead, she has to think, and draw an independent conclusion. It would have been easy for her to just go along with what she was told, but that doesn't satisfy her. In short, Daiyu is a very fine heroine indeed. Gateway is not quite as stunningly original as Shinn's Angel books, but then, what is. I enthusiastically recommend it to those who enjoy their YA romance with a twist of time, fate, and political intrigue.
Thoughts on age appropriateness: School Library Journal has this as grades 6-9, which surprised me a bit. Because Daiyu and Kalen never get any privacy, nothing has a chance to happen, as it were, between them, so there's nothing that would make a 6th grader blush. But I think that thematically it is for older readers--I'd put it as upper Middle Grade/YA.
Thoughts on the cover:
Although on the one hand it would have been great if Daiyu had been clearly shown on the cover as the Chinese American girl she is (her nose looks awfully European to me), I think this is one of the most metaphorically rich covers I've paid attention to in ages (those who dislike overblown metaphor fun should stop reading now).
The black spot/hole at the center of the parasol is the chasm of time/space separating the two lovers--their lips can never cross it to kiss--while from it extend the ribs of the parasol (i.e. the lives of alternate possibility), that join the two together, giving hope that they will meet again. The parasol shows that their love in this time and place is shadowed--it is limited by cultural constraints, yet the two red birds (embodying passion) fly unfettered above them.
I dunno what the dragonflies on the parasol mean though. Or why he gets more of them on his side than she does.