The Heavenly Sword by Alice Poon
I read it as a(n): digital ARC
Length: 390 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Alice Poon delivers the first of a duology epic fantasy based in Chinese mythology and kung fu. In this first novel, Sai’er is a simple village girl training in the ancient arts of kung fu. Thanks to a helpful sprite, she learns she is the reincarnation of the goddess Chang’e. She must go on a quest to stop the wicked Sky Wolf, who is reincarnated as the Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Di. Aided by her foster brother Binhong and several other friends, both mortal and supernatural, Sai’er embarks on an adventure rivaling any in the fantasy genre.
I enjoyed this, as I did Poon’s earlier books. She does a terrific job of blending fantasy, mythology, and real history all together to make a credible story. I would almost categorize this book magical realism rather than fantasy simply because the elements of magic are so closely woven into the factual parts of the story. They just…belong. Of course Sai’er has a sprite friend. Of course she is an immortal sent to earth. It could be no other way. There isn’t any suspension of disbelief while reading this, it’s just the way things are in Sai’er’s life. So that is particularly well done on the author’s part.
I did have a little trouble, mostly in the earlier parts of the book, with the pacing. This is a very fast-paced story (which is fine, it adds to the kung fu feel of the plot for me), but sometimes I felt like I overlooked something when, for example, I thought we were in one place and then the narration kicked us over to a different place. For example, Sai’er and Binhong were traveling and one minute they were on a very steep staircase carved into a cliff and the next they were surrounded by imperial guards and there was a courtyard. The text hadn’t indicated any other setting prior to that so it was a little jarring to change settings like that. But then I got used to the pacing and it was fine after that.
I think for someone like me, whose experience with wuxia/kung fu extends to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a handful of Jackie Chan films, this is a very good introduction to the genre. Poon talks about her lifelong love of wuxia (Chinese martial arts/kung fu novels), and references Jin Yong. I had never heard of him before so now I am tempted to read some of his works. Apparently, he’s big in the genre… I never would have learned about him had I not read this book. I always appreciate a book that teaches me something!
I don’t think this necessarily has to be an adult novel, either. Yes, there’s some sex and gore, but I don’t think it was gratuitous or anything inappropriate for a teen to read. Maybe that’s just my Gen X showing. My parents had no clue what I was reading – or where I was, really – most of the time. So maybe take it with a grain of salt, but this read-all-of-Stephen-King’s-and-V.C.-Andrews’-then-published-works-by-the-time-I-was-12 GenXer thinks it’s totally fine for teen readers as well.