Release Geek: A Heart Divided and Legend of the Condor Heroes

Alex here.

I’m exhausted.

It’s done.

It’s finally done.

On August 24th, A Heart Divided, the fourth and final part of Legend of the Condor Heroes will be released in the US. It’s been two years, give or take, and it has been one of my favorite rides in reading and one of the best random whims I ever had.

At last, completed!

See, waaay back in April 2019, we got an advance copy of a book called A Hero Born. I thought it looked interesting, so I had a read. It was a novel set in China in the early 1200s, Genghis Khan was a side character, and it had martial artists and princes and Taoist holy men in a setting where sufficiently trained martial artists are capable of feats of athleticism and control that are straight-up superhuman. See, it’s a genre of fiction we don’t really have here in the West called wuxia (pronounced woo-sha, or close enough to go with). The setting is historical, the plot is often historical, but the action is something closer to fantasy. So I read A Hero Born, and it ended abruptly. Not on a cliffhanger, but just…ended.

I investigated a little further, and found out that, like Lord of the Rings, Legend of the Condor Heroes is a long novel in its own right and split up for more convenient publication, and A Hero Born was just part one of four. It was written in China in the 1950s as a newspaper serial and it’s never gotten a proper US release until now because everyone always thought it was too Chinese to fly over here, but it’s a classic in China and it’s spawned many adaptations and imitators.

For illustration purposes, I’m going to use images from a 2017 TV adaptation.

Now, with the release of A Heart Divided, it’s done and thanks to the advance copy I got to read in time, I can finally give my thoughts on the series as a whole.

Legend of the Condor Heroes is Character Growth: The Novel. The main character, Guo Jing, is almost an archetypal good-hearted but thick-skulled hero, but in his case it works–I think it’s by dint of him being being such an early example of the type, it hadn’t reached the point of shorthand or parody. He’s also not so much unintelligent as he is uneducated and a slow learner. He grew up in Mongolia in Genghis Khan’s tribe, he didn’t exactly get a formal education in Chinese history, literature, or other cultural niceties.

Our hero, folks. Guo Jing as portrayed by Xuwen Yang in Legend of the Condor Heroes 2017.

Yes, this novel is set in the early 1200s. China is divided into north and south empires–the Jin and the Song respectively–and Temujin (he hasn’t yet achieved the unification of the Mongols and become Genghis Khan) is kicking around building his forces and he’s a major side character. Guo’s parents were Song citizens; his father’s even descended from a famous Song soldier and patriot. Their village was attacked by Jin forces and Guo’s pregnant mother, after some tribulations, ends up traveling north into Mongolia where she’s taken in by a tribe–who are decent people and can’t leave a poor pregnant woman on her own–and she delivers her son and raises him on Mongolian soil.

This is a feature I do really appreciate in the book: The politics and history of the setting matters and influences why the characters do what they do. It is a wuxia novel, and the weird parallel society that makes up the world of martial artists is a major focus, but it shares the spotlight with the more ordinary world of politics, government, and military power in a way that makes “1200s China” mean something more than window dressing.

Anyway, the martial arts comes in a little later: Some martial artists who were peripherally involved with Guo’s parents felt they’d failed to protect them. They make an agreement to find Guo and another child of the village (his parents were friends with Guo’s parents) and teach them martial arts as a way to ensure their safety in life.

When Guo’s 18, they send him on walkabout through China to meet up with his counterpart and see who’s better, and that’s when a lot of the trouble kicks off.

As a character, Guo is more or less a walking block of virtue. He’s selfless, loyal, kind, brave, and several other things besides. Over the course of the books, having to function on his own as an adult makes him think for himself, and he…well, he stays a good dude, but he gets wiser and more nuanced about it, having to find his own way to resolve conflicting desires and loyalties.

The side cast is also interesting: Hardly anyone is entirely black or white. Otherwise heroic or noble characters will have flaws or points of selfishness to them, and it matters–one character’s hotheaded impulsiveness leads to the whole plot!–and most of the villainous will have points of virtue or nobility to them that save them from not being complete caricatures of wickedness, and these points feel like organic parts of a character, not something tacked on and mentioned.

PIctured: Wanyan Honglie, a Prince of the Jin Empire (as played by Fengyan Zong in Condor Heroes 2017). He’s a conniving, manipulative schemer out to ensure the ascendancy of the Jin by hook or by crook, and he’s also a doting husband to his wife and a truly loving and supportive father to his adopted son–Guo’s counterpart. Wait ’til you hear how THAT happened.

This probably says more about me than anything else, but I was surprised that a novel written in China in the 1950s had a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Mongolians, as well as several strong female characters. Guo Jing’s eventual romantic interest is a standout: Lotus Huang is the daughter of one of the world’s greatest martial artists, and he’s also a polymath, an obnoxiously talented master of several disciplines. She’s as intelligent as her father is and she’s received a standout education in music, art, history, cooking, and mathematics, as well her father teaching her to be a formidable martial artist in her own right. She’s a major player in the plot and events, her impish cunning and genius intelligence letting her keep herself and Guo out of trouble sometimes. Guo’s own even temperament mellows her out and makes her moderate her trouble-causing impulses.

She is small and pretty but contains great cunning. (Li Yitong playing ‘Lotus’ Huang in Condor Heroes 2017)

Since Legend of the Condor Heroes was originally written as a newspaper serial, high drama ensues and events go at a breakneck pace–Jin Yong had to keep readers interested and also make every chunk worth reading. A friend likened it to riding in a van going 20 miles over the speed limit, and it keeps making sharp turns, but it somehow never crashes.

It’s translated from Chinese, of course, and the translation is a bit stiff and gives a lot of characters a title or a translation of their name for people unused to Chinese names (f’rinstance, Lotus Huang is an adaptation of Huang Rong, and her father Apothecary Huang would be more accurately rendered as Huang Yaoshi), but it works and helps the tone. Likewise, many of the martial arts moves aren’t described in detail, you just get told someone performed a move called Push Back The Mountain and whatever imagery that name suggests to you is what it gets.

Legend of the Condor Heroes goes all over China, into Mongolia, and the historical setting–which pays its respects and casts its judgment on actual historical figures and events–gives it a rich texture that makes it a worthy backdrop of a madcap fantasy adventure.

If you’re looking for something different, I highly recommend it.

Now let’s see if they do the sequel, Return of the Condor Heroes.

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