The Blurb On The Back:
The peaceful Song Empire has been invaded by the warlike Jurchen tribes from the north. Meanwhile, on the Mongolian steppes, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a chieftain whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.
Our hero, Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song warrior, grows up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
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The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the year 1205, China.
The Jin Empire has invaded the Song Empire to the south and captured its capital, Kaifeng 2 years ago. Betrayed by corrupt officials and generals in thrall to the Jin, the Song Empire continues to cede territory, despite paying high tributes to try and end the war.
Ironheart Yang and Skyfury Guo are two Song warriors strong in kung-fu, who are now trying to live quietly as farmers together with their wives Charity Bao and Lily Li in Ox Village in the Song Empire. When they offer help to the Taoist monk, Eternal Spring Qiu Chuji after he kills a Song Empire traitor, the two men find themselves targeted for arrest by the Jin Empire. The two men fight the troops to try and give their pregnant wives a chance to get away, only to be cut down and the women captured.
Charity is rescued from the Jin troops by Yan Lie, a young man she had previously discovered injured in the village and given assistance to. What she doesn’t know is that he is really Wanyan Honglie, the Sixth Prince of the Jin Empire who has fallen in love with her and wishes to take her back to the Jin court …
Lily is captured by a Song traitor, the evil Justice Duan, but after a series of adventures (including the intervention of Eternal Spring and a gang of kung-fu masters known as The Seven Freaks of the South), escapes to the steppes of Mongolia where she gives birth to a son called Guo Jing. Guo Jing grows up on the steppes, eventually helping Jebe who becomes one of the Khan’s generals to Temujin (later to become Genghis Khan) and building a firm friendship with Tolui, the Khan’s fourth son.
Several years years later and Guo Jing is a humble boy, loyal to his mother and his Khan and who tries to do the right thing. When he is found by the Seven Freaks of the South, they resolve to train him in kung-fu to settle a bet made with Eternal Spring on which of Ironheart Yang’s and Skyfury Guo’s children will have the best kung-fu skills and thereby prove who is the strongest master by having a contest when the children turn 18.
When the time comes for Guo Jing to travel to the contest with his sifus, he befriends an extraordinary young kung-fu practitioner and thief called Lotus Huang, together with Mu Yi and his daughter Mercy Mu who have been travelling the country and running fighting competitions for young men to try and beat Mercy’s kung-fu and thereby win her hand in marriage. Unfortunately he also runs into Wanyan King, an arrogant and rude young Jin Prince who is strong in kung-fu but low in morals, honour or kindness.
For Guo Jing to become the hero he is destined to be, he must throw off his innocence, stay true to his morals, hone all his kung-fu skills and stick by his friends and teachers. But this is difficult as he finds himself moving in worlds he is not used to, where kung-fu can be used to further the ends of evil people and where even the friendliest people can be enemies in disguise …
This is the first ever English translation from Chinese of Jin Yong’s classic historical fantasy tale of kung fu masters and evil empires by Anna Holmwood. Originally published in 1958 (the first in a quartet), it has an action-driven, energetic plot and although the portrayal of grumpy kung-fu masters seems stereotypical now, it was innovative at the time and there’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing the various masters compete with each other.
I had not come across Jin Yong’s work before, and I am aware that there has been criticism of the translation work in this book as not being authentic to the original text and in particular the names. I can’t comment on that because I don’t read Chinese and so cannot judge to what extent it’s authentic. However, reading this as an English language book, I think that Holmwood’s translation gets across the energy of the story and the relationship between the various characters and you do feel that you are reading a story set in historical China – I was reminded of watching Hong Kong kung-fu movies as I read this book, particularly because of the way the fight scenes are depicted with moves being named rather than described in detail, which leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination and is therefore very effective and evocative.
One thing I had to keep reminding myself was that this book was published in China in 1958 so some of the elements that feel quite stereotypical if you’re a regular fantasy reader (the grumpy kung-fu master, the nice but not-too-bright hero, the cunning and manipulative antagonist) would have been fresh at the time and helped shaped the modern stereotypes. I particularly liked the grump-off between Eternal Spring and Flying Bat (the leader of the Seven Freaks) who are both kung-fu masters and both quick to take offence and harsh with those they think are slighting them.
I really enjoyed all of the Seven Freaks, each of whom has a distinct personality and fighting style and tries to influence Guo Jing. The scenes where the Seven Freaks are getting frustrated with Guo Jing’s slowness at picking up their arts is very believable and Jin Yong does well to convey how they do love the boy but equally want to win their bet with Eternal Spring. Guo Yong himself is a worthy hero – very honourable and humble and determined to do his best but not naturally quick to be violent and a little confused by the opposite sex. You do cheer him on as he works and travels and I did worry about him when he got into trouble.
Also good in the book are the scenes depicting the rise of Genghis Khan, which shows him as very much a great man with foresight who was trying to do right by his adopted father while at the same time acknowledging that he went behind his adopted father’s back, albeit in the belief that it would help his people. I’ll be interested in seeing how this storyline will tie back in with Guo Jing’s journey as a hero and the Song Empire in future books because there are open plot lines at the end of the book, through the fact that Wanyan Honglie is concerned about their military prowess and the fact that Guo Jing finds himself engaged to the Khan’s daughter.
The book packs an awful lot into its pages and although the writing isn’t technically fantastic at times (e.g. there’s a lot of head hopping) but the pacing works really well so it never feels bogged down and the events keep happening, which held my interest. If I had one criticism though, it’s that the female characters are all quite under-developed and very much of the time of writing. With the exception of Lotus and Khojin (the Khan’s daughter), they’re all quite submissive and prone to making foolish decisions, usually because they’re too soft-hearted and are even Lotus and Khojin are shown as desiring approval of men (specifically their fathers). Again, this is I think due to when it was written and the culture in which it was written so I could put it to one side and not have it disrupt my enjoyment of the book, and indeed there are aspects of Lotus’s character which are genuinely quite ahead of its time given that she’s such a phenomenal kung-fu practitioner.
The book ends on quite an abrupt cliff-hanger, which made me really keen to read the next book and on the strength of this book, I will definitely be checking out the sequel.