Book Review: A Hero Born

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A Hero Born (Legends of the Condor Heroes #1)
by Jin Yong, translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood
Fantasy
416 pages
Expected Publication: September 17, 2019, from St. Martin’s Press

 

Though it has no specific counterpart in Western writing, the wuxia novel has been part of Chinese literature for centuries. ‘Wuxia’ literally means ‘armed heroes’, and features stories about young heroes who usually come from a lower social class and have no lord or master to follow. These heroes usually endure some sort of personal tragedy or loss and often go on a quest to right some wrong. They are guided by a code of ethics not unlike Western chivalry or the Japanese samurai bushido, are trained in a martial art style, and do their best to redress wrongs done to themselves or others.

With his Legends of the Condor Heroes series, popular Chinese author Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha) created a story that has become massively popular since it was first serialized in 1957. Since then, the series has sold more than 300,000,000 copies and been translated in multiple languages, though this new translation by Anna Holmwood is the first time the story has appeared in English.

Though A Hero Born is about the early life of Guo Jing, the story opens before his birth. Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang are the best of friends, and their wives are both pregnant. The two friends decide that their children will either be sworn siblings (if they are the same gender) of will be married (if they are of different genders). But before either child is born, a chance encounter with a Taoist will bring ruin onto their lives, as both Skyfury Guo, Ironheart Yang, and the Taoist are enemies of the corrupt government. When soldiers set upon them, the friends are separated and killed and their wives forced to flee. Skyfury’s wife, Lily Li, ends up in Mongolia, where she gives birth to her son, Guo Jing. Eventually, they end up in the court of Temujin, the future Genghis Khan, who takes a liking to young Guo Jing and raises him along with his own children.

Meanwhile, a group of warriors known as the Seven Freaks of the South has been searching for Guo Jing in order to fulfill a promise they made. They intend to train Guo Jing in their various styles of martial arts so that one day, he can face an opponent who will be his equal– and his opposite. The Seven Freaks of the South encounter many obstacles in their quest, however, and come across enemies who could put an end to all of them before they even locate Guo Jing.

But after many trials and travails, the Seven Freaks to find Guo Jing and begin to train him. Their elation is tempered by the fact that Guo Jing has little aptitude for martial arts, and while the boy has great mental fortitude and purity of heart, he is not very smart. The Seven Freaks worry that he will not be ready to face his opponent when the time comes. Behind all this, political forces are slowly building and will soon clash in ways that will change the course of history forever.

“Temujin’s men had claimed a resolute victory over their longstanding enemy… Temujin was flooded with the memories of his capture at their hands, their beatings and insults, the torture and the yoke. Today’s victory had gone some way to redressing that humiliation. His heart quickened, and a laugh bubbled up from within. The earth shook with the shouts of his men as they withdrew from the bloody field.”

It is clear early on that A Hero Born is not a novel from a Western tradition. There is little worldbuilding and even less explanation of the story’s historical background. Readers are expected to know who Temujin is and what his place is in Chinese history. The struggle between the Jin and Song factions are glossed over, too, and readers unfamiliar with Chinese may find themselves flailing at first, though Holmwood’s introduction goes a long way to orienting readers within the historical and cultural context of A Hero Born. But a perfect understanding of Chinese history is not necessary to the story, as contextual clues help the reader to sort out the basics of the good guys and the bad guys.

The pacing, too, is different from what Western readers will be accustomed to. Though the story spans many years and hundreds of miles, the exposition is largely glossed over in favor of intricately described action sequences featuring names of martial arts forms that seem strange at first until the reader settles into the flow of the story. If the reader has watched Chinese martial arts films such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) or House of Flying Daggers (2004), then imagining the many fight scenes will be easy, as Jon Yong’s writing (and Holmwood’s translation) paints of vivid picture of the fight scenes and moves the story forward at lightning speed.

This is not to say that A Hero Born is nothing but a series of linked fight scenes. It has all the elements a great story could want– rivalries, pure-hearted heroes, clever heroines, love, loss, and tragedy backed up by sweeping historical events. Holmwood’s brilliant translation of A Hero Born opens up an exciting story to the English-speaking world and will leave readers breathlessly awaiting the next installment.


 

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for giving me a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

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