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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book and the Sword

Louis Cha
(Jin Yong)

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To purchase The Book and the Sword

Title: The Book and the Sword
Author: Louis Cha
Genre: Novel
Written: 1955 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 511 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Book and the Sword - US
The Book and the Sword - UK
The Book and the Sword - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • Chinese title: 書劍恩仇錄
  • Translated by Graham Earnshaw
  • Edited by Rachel May and John Minford

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rousing mix of romance and adventure

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Book and the Sword is set mainly around 1758-60, during the reign of Qian Long, the fourth Manchu emperor, who also figures prominently in the novel. Three major groups dominate the novel: the Red Flower Society, the country's largest, whose principal aim is to overthrow the Manchus and restore a Chinese emperor to the Dragon Throne; the imperial forces -- i.e. the Manchus; and the Uighurs.
       The Book and the Sword is notable for the numerous female figures -- especially younger ones -- who are adept at martial arts. The novel opens with teenage Li Yuanzhi, the daughter of the Manchu Commander-in-Chief, Li Kixiu, apprenticing to Hidden Needle Lu, a onetime member of the Dragon Slayers' Society, another anti-Manchu group that had, however, been crushed by the Manchus. She becomes a talented fighter, and proves to be very independent, not always playing her role as the decorous daughter of a leading official -- not least when:

It would have been improper for the daughter of a high official to be seen riding in public, so she changed into boy's clothes. These made her look so extraordinarily dashing and handsome that she refused to change back into her normal attire no matter what anyone said. All Lady Li could do was sigh and let her daughter have her way.
       Li Yuanzhi's get-up -- making her appear to be male -- allows her to readily get involved in activities she would normally be excluded from but also predictably is the cause of some confusion and mistaken assumptions.
       Another young woman of about the same age is also well-trained in kung fu -- Huo Qingtong, the daughter of the Uighur leader, Khozi Hodja. Huo Qingtong has a younger sister, Hasli, who is stunningly beautiful -- and whose lovely smell gets her dubbed the Fragrant Princess. Finally, there is also Zhou Qi, the teenage daughter of a martial arts master, who also shows great prowess.
       These four young women are, however, only part of a much larger cast of characters. The bustling novel follows several different though often overlapping or at least intersecting storylines. With its large cast of characters, Cha can only keep so many in the mix at any given time; characters do fade off-scene at times, while the narrative tends to stay where the action is -- and there is quite a bit of it.
       Larger storylines include, early on, the Uighurs trying to retrieve their Sacred Book --- a Koran that the Manchu forces have stolen. The Uighurs get the book back thanks to the Red Flower Society -- and specifically their leader, Helmsman Chen. As thanks, Huo Qingtong gives him a dagger that her father gave her:
It is said that a great secret is hidden in it, but it has been passed down from hand to hand over the centuries, and no one has ever been able to discover what the secret is.
       Needless to say, the secret is eventually revealed ......
       Huo Qingtong also falls in love with Chen -- as then will her sister, Hasli, making for an uncomfortable situation all around. It is further complicated when the Emperor also falls in love with Hasli.
       Another secret proves even more significant. Another high-ranking member of the Red Flower Society, Rolling Thunder Wen at first only goes so far as to say: "the Emperor has a secret I must expose before I die". Wen is taken captive, and the Society struggles to free the well-protected prisoner -- with Qian Long finding himself in what looks like a lose-lose situation regarding the prisoner, as is made clear when Helmsman Chen confronts him:
     Helmsman Chen could feel his blood boiling. 'Kill Brother Wen, and you will never sleep easy again,' he threatened.
     'And if I don't kill him, I will never sleep easy either.'
       Wen finally reveals the Emperor's secret to Chen -- and it is a doozy. It also brings with it what seems like a great opportunity: the Red Flower Society's goals and Qian Long's might not be as irreconcilable as once thought; indeed, the ties between Helmsman Chen and the Emperor are closer than anyone could have imagined ..... The Emperor does need some convincing -- and gets some, not least when he is in the hands of the Society for a while and they toy with him to make some of their points.
       There are a variety of adventures in the novel, including several in the eastern plains and deserts. Often, large numbers of forces are arrayed -- at least on one side or another -- but Cha is best in the scenes and confrontations where a smaller group of plucky individuals find themselves in difficult situations. Much of it is quite rousing stuff, not least the chases by huge packs of wolves as well as the experiences in a lost, deserted -- and cursed -- city.
       Cha is somewhat constrained by history, not least with regards to Qian Long's choice as to whether or not to go along with Chen's plan: readers know that the Manchus prevailed -- but Cha does make reaching that foregone conclusion quite exciting. The final showdown(s), with the beautiful Hasli, devoted to Chen, figuring significantly in how events unfold are orchestrated very deftly: it's a while in coming, but Cha knows how to build to a climax.
       When Chen recounts one of his encounters with the Emperor his audience is: "amazed by the twists and turns in the story", and it's far from the only episode in The Book and the Sword that can be described like that. Typically, too, what happens in one early case applies to many other pieces of the story: "somehow, one misunderstanding followed another". Cha weaves a lot into his story -- and has a lot of characters popping in and out; at times, parts of the story can be hard to keep track of, distracting from the relatively simple (and powerful) central plot-point, the Emperor's secret.
       Ultimately, however, the novel is built on -- and much of the action sustained by -- the characters' rectitude (and the challenges to it, including in various forms of betrayal). The martial arts masters are men and women of honor, true to their word. Strikingly, there are many scenes where enemies meet but still act hospitably and politely to one another. Cha excels at the natural tension of these situations -- and in pushing the boundaries: an extravagant meal may be laid out for an enemy -- but, yes, the food might also be poisoned. Among the most amusing episodes has the Emperor held captive by the Red Flower Society; he is treated respectfully by them, yet also cleverly needled at every point.
       The approach does lead to some peculiar results as well, as when Chen goes in search of Huo Qingtong:
He was a Chinese, and the Uighurs could suspect him of being a spy, so to gain their confidence he would have to resort to deception.
       For all the rectitude of many of the characters, even they are not always as upfront about matters as they might be -- not least in their romantic entanglements -- repeatedly complicating matters.
       Cha's ambition gets the better of him in some respects here. This is yet another very, very broad canvas; a tighter focus might easily have made for a more powerful tale. On the other hand, there has apparently been some editing of the text in its translation, and it's not clear that that has worked out ideally either: Translator Graham Earnshaw does acknowledge: "I was as faithful to the spirit of the original as I could be, but took the view that it was necessary to simplify some elements of the story and the writing in order to make it more acceptable to an English-reading audience". As unwieldy as Cha's full canvas may be, a full reproduction of it might have been easier to grasp: if you're going to go big, might as well go all the way -- and Earnshaw apparently pulled back in his translation. He notes that the only differences with the original are ones: "of omission" -- and that the author countenanced them -- but that might have blurred the picture more than it sharpened it.
       The Book and the Sword is good entertainment, notable also for mixing romance and adventure very successfully. There are several strong characters here -- several of which the reader likely would have enjoyed seeing more of -- and while history puts some constraints on the outcome, Cha brings the ending about in stirring fashion. After some lulls, the conclusion, in particular, impresses.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 August 2022

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The Book and the Sword: Reviews: Louis Cha (Jin Yong): Other books by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Jin Yong (金庸; actually 查良鏞)), also known as Louis Cha, lived 1924 to 2018.

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© 2022 the complete review

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