Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes series has sold over 300 million copies in China. His blend of history and fantasy has been wowing Chinese audiences since 1957. This mass popularity and the fantastic nature of his stories have led his British publisher to denote him “the Chinese Tolkien.” A worthy honor or marketing hyperbole? I read the first book in the series, A Hero Born, to find out.
Here are five reasons to read the book.
1. The Setting
A Hero Born is set predominantly in China, though a fair chunk of it is set north of the Great Wall, in Mongolia. This is the China of stories such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s a clean, idealized world, filled with stunning vistas and glorious cities. The novel mainly follows Guo Jing, a dispossessed young boy who grows up on the Mongolian steppe. We, the readers, know how he got there, but Guo does not. We watch as he grows into his destiny and the epic story of The Legend of the Condor Heroes unfolds.
2. The Kung Fu
The representation of fighting in A Hero Born is unreal—again, very reminiscent of Chinese fantasy combat films. Expect countless arrows to be shot, thrown, caught, and deflected in the most unlikely ways. Imagine gravity-defying leaps and people rendered unconscious by a single touch to a particular pressure point. Combat is an art form in this book. You’ll find the use of terms such as chi, qigong, and neigong, and exotic combat forms with wonderful names like “Soaring Phoenix Rising Dragon” and “Seize the Basket by the Handle.” These names give the book a sense of charm and mysticism.
3. The History
The backdrop to this book is feudal China. It’s the time of the Song dynasty and their wars with Jin. Genghis Khan is but a young warlord, yet to unify his tribes. The woven threads of history form the background on which the book’s fairytale story plays out.
4. The Book’s Fairytale Nature
A Hero Born reads like a fairy tale, or maybe an early legend, such as the Death of King Arthur. It’s a tale built upon valor and honor. The story opens with two friends fighting side-by-side, only to die, leaving behind two pregnant wives. The wives are separated, and two sons are born hundreds of miles apart, but what of the binding oath their fathers swore before they died?
This is a tale filled with mystical monks and itinerant warriors. It features impenetrable disguises and hidden identities. There is impossible combat, feats of strength, phenomenal bravery, and enchanting magic. A Hero Born is largely preposterous yet, somehow, utterly enthralling.
The scope of this novel is epic. It does read like Tolkien, though more like the Silmarillion than the Lord of the Rings. There is a detached feel to the book, as though telling a history rather than recounting a story. We, the reader, are kept at arm’s length from knowing the characters thoughts and feelings.
A Hero Born is just the beginning. Its sweeping vistas, a huge cast of characters, and beguiling sorcery have another three volumes to traverse before they reach a conclusion. The scope and size and the adventure are somewhat mind-boggling. Despite being at the end of a 400-page first volume, there is still so much more story to come. The book ends with a definite cliffhanger. I’m intrigued to find out where the story will head next.
Those are my 5 reasons to read A Hero Born. I have to say that the book won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. It does feel a little long in places. I think, because of the high-level narration, we don’t feel for these characters as we might in more modern fantasy stories (the book was written in 1957).
Yet, being patient when the story lulls and seeing it through to the end does deliver a reward. The novel develops its own magic the more you read of it until, at the very end, you’re on tenterhooks waiting to see what might happen. The novel does conclude with very little resolved; there is a nagging feeling that you’ve just read a 400-page prologue, yet somehow it all works.
I wouldn’t want to read novels like A Hero Born every day, but as a break from my usual fare, it was very tasty. I’m definitely intrigued to know what’s going to happen next to Guo Jin and the other characters in the Legends of the Condor Heroes.
If you enjoyed this review do check out my 5 Reasons to Read posts here.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes.