A Hero Born by Jin Yong (translated by Anna Holmwood)
Publisher - Maclehose Press
Published - Out Now
Price £14.99 paperback
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review
China 1200AD The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands, the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan. Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army, 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. Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China – to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing – to fulfil his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.
This Chinese martial arts series started in the 1950’s and has already sold 300 million copies (and rumours suggest in bootleg form up to 1 billion!) Its however only just made its way across the world thanks to an excellent English translation by the translator Anna Holmwood. Safe to say I was not sure what I was in for and I was pleasantly surprised to find a fast-paced epic fantasy that has a unique way of storytelling and some surprisingly modern approaches to the genre.
The saga starts with two friends (and highly trained martial artists) Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang who are living in a Chinese empire where the enemy Jin empire secretly has control. The two meet a Taoist monk Qui Chuji who is carrying the head of a Jin spy he recently despatched. This minor misunderstanding is quickly over but draws the attention of enemy Jin forces who order both men for execution. The pregnant wives of both are made to flee as their husbands are mortally injured and we focus on Lily Li who moves to the Mongol Empire, Qui Chuji is desperate to know what happened to his friends and after some epic battles with the mighty kung Fu sect The Seven Freaks of the South its agreed that to make up for lost time the two factions will each search for one child. Lily Li gives birth to Guo Jing and we see him grow up to become a sensible young man in search of a destiny and has a major role in uniting the Mongol groups!
This is a true epic plot, and this is just volume 1! But it never feels overloaded. In comparison with many western epics where you can appear to live every mile of a quest it’s more as if a vast selection of short stories/key scenes are being told by a storyteller. Each one stands on its two feet but there is a larger story slowly evolving leading to potentially the defeat of the Jin. For example, a scene where Guo Jing tames a wild horse is quickly turned into Guo and his shifus (The seven Freaks) working to free a victim from a would be serial killer and then shortly after that the final battle in the Mongol Civil war. The pace is indeed frenetic, but it flows very organically. Yong ensures there is an emotional kick to each scene be that the heroic last stand of Ironheart and Skyfury to the tragic scene where Timujan (shortly to be Genghis Khan) buries his best friend’s toys in the soil as a sign their friendship is over on the eve of war. Moving from epic history to these moments especially considering the pace it goes at is immensely skilful. Its perhaps notable for post-revolutionary China there is an ongoing theme of good people taking on corrupt nobles and creating a better world. Happily, not overly done but you can sense that at the time this message would not have been popular.
The action scenes are also a highlight. In this world we have many Kung Fu sects all with key sills. This can range from the humorous (a monk who can in drinking contest force the alcohol from their skin!) to the deadly. There are networks are touring shifus who either feud with or teach each other. Rather than describe each kick and punch instead we get beautiful terms such as Nine Yin Skelton Claw, Shoot the Arrow moving from the ability to fight hordes of armed guards to climbing steep mountains at high speed. As you get used to the world you will notice the different styles and the bigger history of the various groups. By not explaining everything in detail it really allows your imagination to add the visual spectacle, but the pace really makes it all come across as if it was a movie scene.
The final standout is character. Our lead character Guo Jing who we see growing up isn’t entirely the standard hero born to rule the kingdom later. He’s kind and good natured rather than an adventurer. Keen to help those in need but very shy when it comes to potential relationships. In contrast and it’s so welcome are the large number of female characters in the story. For a 1950’s tale the number and variety of women in different roles we see from Lily the doting mother who is prepared to hide in the steppes to Temujin’s daughter Khojin who is happy to defy her arranged marriage to the totally independent, playful and certainly skilled martial artist Lotus Huang and finally the mysterious powerful Consort who holds secrets that will bring about the story’s confusion. Yes, there are elements of sexism; Ironhearts’s wife is viewed as too kind leading to their enemy’s attack but overall, it’s a world where women can act and talk and often match the lead male. Compare that with Tolkien’s ‘vast array’ of women in key roles…. ahem.
So, for me this was a very immersive reading experience introducing me to a world and style of storytelling I was not previously familiar with. It’s epic, heartfelt, funny and has breath-taking pace. Possibly it may be too fast for readers more used to watching someone grow up year by year in one volume but I think it’s a fascinating experience and will be watching out for volume 2 next year.