Book Geek-out: Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the perks of this job is getting access to ARCs. I get to see stuff that may not be out for months yet and try it to see if I like it. It gives me an incentive to try things I never would have on my own, and there’s no better case of this than A Hero Born, the first part of Legend of the Condor Heroes. 

I had no idea what it was when I got hold of it, but doing some research on all-knowing Google filled me in on the basics. Legend of the Condor Heroes is a Chinese novel written in 1957 by Jin Yong, the pen name of one Louis Cha. It was originally serialized in a newspaper, and it’s been called–and not inaccurately–the Chinese equivalent to Lord of the Rings; Condor Heroes has proved enduringly popular in Asia, and spawned countless adaptations in various other media, and a major influence on following works, putting a mark on an entire genre of fiction. In this case, that genre is wuxia.

Yeah, it’s not one we really have in the west. But here’s the deal: wuxia is a genre where martial artists go on journeys, learn more and improve their skills, and right wrongs along the way. The action is very frequently over-the-top, with master martial artists capable of feats of strength, control, and athleticism that are straight-up superhuman. Fight scenes can resemble Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger wire-fu, rendered in print. It’s fantasy, but instead of outright magic they usually have really good kung fu.

Now that we know what the genre even is, we can talk about this in particular. Legend of the Condor Heroes hasn’t, as near as I can tell, ever really been officially translated and published in the US until now. It’s probably always been seen as too culturally Chinese to fly over here. It’s a shame because it’s been a fun read thus far.

Yes, I’m not done reading it yet. Condor Heroes is, like Lord of the Rings, a very long work being published in chunks. A Hero Born is the first part, and we got an ARC about five months before it came out and I thought the cover looked interesting and tried it. The second part, A Bond Undone comes out today, and there’s two more parts forthcoming.

Y’all. Put it like this. This book is so good I had a complete copy of it, for free, and I still bought it when it came out. It’s been a ride and one I’m thoroughly enjoying.

Condor Heroes happens in the 1200s during the Jin-Song War, when China was split into north and south empires. As the book portrays it, the northern side, the Jin, was a more mountainous, less hospitable land than the fertile south and didn’t have nearly the population of the southern Song empire, but the Song court and government in general was corrupt and the military leadership was weak, while the Jin had some extremely sharp princes and leaders, giving both sides a parity that led into an extremely long stalemate.

I’d never really heard about this before, and it’s not only explained but it’s what sets the plot in motion and shapes the world these characters live in. In the beginning, a hotheaded martial arts master has vigilante-killed a Song official for taking Jin bribes to let the Jin do what they want in his area–in fact, the master killed the official and most of the Jin he was dealing with (see above regarding ‘hotheaded’), and he flees through the winter snows. He passes through a remote village, where he gets invited in by the hospitable locals, gets in a brief fight with one of them (hotheaded, remember?), and then makes friends with his opponent and his opponent’s best friend. 

A black-and-white drawing of two men fighting in the snow. A man and a woman look on in the background, and one of the fighters has slapped a spear from the grip of the other, who is dismayed at being disarmed.
There’s lovely illustrations every chapter.

The two men are descended from famous Song patriots and they’re both married, with children on the way. The master proposes that when the children are born, in the fullness of time, he’ll come and train the children in the ways of kung fu, and even suggests names for them: Guo Jing and Yang Kang, the two main characters of the novel. 

That’s right. This novel starts before the main characters are even born. For all it sounds like a slow start, it really moves rather briskly–I think it’s a result of its original publication. A serialized work has to have something interesting happen in every chunk to keep the reader’s interest from part to part. The sequence I described up there isn’t even the entirety of the first chapter.

A Hero Born features Guo Jing’s origins, his childhood and early training, and him setting out when he’s 18 to see the world and fulfill a promise made. 

A Bond Undone, the second part of the novel, is Guo on his journey and finding out about the world and this is where he starts to really come together as a person: He gets more advanced training, learns more about himself, does some good, and starts to show flashes of insight and ability that people don’t expect from him

Yeah, that’s another thing. Guo Jing is canonically, officially dense and a very slow learner. He’s not stupid, precisely, but he’s not a swift thinker. I didn’t quite expect that.

The book has made me confront my own biases: I, in my ignorance, flat-out didn’t think I’d see a Chinese novel written in 1957 have a female lead character as strong as Lotus Huang–she’s as swift-thinking and intuitive and imaginative as Guo isn’t, and they make a strong pair. In fact, she’s the one responsible for a lot of Guo’s upskilling–they meet a martial arts master, a true master with some profound and powerful techniques to offer, who’s irascible and eccentric but he’s also a gourmand, and Lotus’s education, provided by her polymath father, has included a good deal of fine cuisine. She bribes him with a different exquisitely made dish every meal time in exchange for lessons for both herself and Guo Jing. This master is legit and he teaches them things that never stop being useful in a fight.

Yeah, Lotus is a good martial artist in her own right, too. She just doesn’t want to be the absolute best like some other characters, and this is presented as a valid choice. 

Also in my ignorance, I did not expect to see a sympathetic portrayal of the Mongols, either, but they’re portrayed as…well, a lot. They’re fierce adversaries while also being some fearsome allies and friends. And yes, the book goes to Mongolia. It goes to lots of places. 

So let’s talk writing. This book wasn’t written in English, and it shows. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just different, especially when it comes to writing about action. The book tends to baldly state what someone did and leave it to you to get excited. Further, it’ll say a martial artist performed a specific named move, like Push Back the Mountain or Wind Parts The Clouds, but it won’t tell you what that move looks like, it’ll just leave it to your imagination and whatever imagery or motion is suggested by the name.

There are also some translation conventions happening here. The translators, rightly or wrongly, seem to assume that some western readers won’t be able to cope with the straight Chinese names of most characters. Guo Jing gets off easy, but other characters are often given a title or a straight-up western-style name to replace one of their names–Sha Tongtian becomes Hector Sha, for example–and characters who share a name might have one switched. There’s already a Ke Zhen’e in the book, so a later character, Ouyang Ke, becomes Gallant Ouyang. I’m not going to judge one way or another, but it is something jarring if you’re not expecting it and it might bother some people.

As you might guess, I’m enchanted with these books. They’re great, and gave me something I never knew I wanted. There’s adventure, romance, history, action, and even illustrations! They’re also so beloved and fondly regarded that there’s a statue of the author on Peach Blossom Island, a real place that’s a major location in Condor Heroes.

A courtyard statue of Jin Yong, a middle-age bald Asian man, sitting on a rock with a book and pen in his lap, smiling benevolently in front of a red-painted temple.
The man himself.

If you’re interested in some new in action, fantasy, or history, I give these my utmost recommendation. Now I’m going to go back to reading them

Purchase options:

A Hero Born

In-Store (for delivery) | To Have it Shipped | eBook | Audio

A Bond Undone

In-Store (for delivery) | To Have it Shipped | eBook | Audio

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