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Book Review: Adventures of the Treasure Fleet by Ann Bowler, illustrated by Lak-Khee Tay-Audouard

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Readers of Ann Bowler’s Gecko’s Complaint who have longed for more of her work will not be disappointed by Adventures of the Treasure Fleet, historical fiction based on a true story of fifteenth-century China. Another beautifully illustrated book for children, Adventures of the Treasure Fleet introduces a piece of history many do not know.

Bowler tells the story on two levels. The children’s story, accompanied by Tay-Audouard’s gently imaginative pencil drawings, is a fictionalized account of the historic events that are detailed at the bottom of every two-page spread. Bowler has taken the seven voyages that the Treasure Fleet made and combined them into one story, abundant with adventure, exotic locales, and colorful characters.

At a time when it seems that every piece of junky merchandise is imported from China, it’s interesting to learn of the fine porcelains and silks that Emperor Zhu Di (third ruler of the Ming Dynasty) loaded on westbound ships to be delivered to rulers of other lands and to be used in trade. In return, he received precious metals, gems, spices, and other treasures.

Bowler fills the pages with interesting facts about the real life Treasure Fleet, which was in operation for 28 years. In all, 317 ships were built; they visited over 30 countries, and traveled more than 35,000 miles under the admiralty of Zheng He. The first sailing was in the autumn of 1405, 87 years before Columbus sailed to the New World.

With 27,000 men aboard the ships, Admiral Zheng He’s venture comprised the largest navy assembled until World War II — more than 500 years later. Crews were made up of the expected soldiers and sailors, but also included “doctors, scribes, shipbuilders, priests, cooks, and diplomats.”

When the ships arrived at various stops, they were not always welcomed with open arms. However, once leaders saw the impressive gifts with which they were presented, they became much friendlier. One interesting — and exciting — incident occurred when Admiral Zheng He led an attack against pirates who terrorized the seas near the trading port of Malacca. The technically advanced Chinese fought with weapons the rest of the world had never seen, and were victorious. This victory led to prosperity for Malacca; it became the largest city in the region.

Pirate battles and hostile greetings are but a few of the many thrilling stories told in Adventures of the Treasure Fleet. It transports the reader to a dream world that actually existed, and painlessly serves up history lessons that are eagerly digested.

Bottom Line: Would I buy Adventures of the Treasure Fleet? Yes. The story is wonderful and the illustrations purchase it a premier spot on the coffee table.

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