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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Hero Born
Legends of the Condor Heroes - I

Jin Yong

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Hero Born

Title: A Hero Born
Author: Jin Yong
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 389 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: A Hero Born - US
A Hero Born - UK
A Hero Born - Canada
in: Le Justicier et l'Aigle mythique (I) - France
  • Legends of the Condor Heroes (Volume 1)
  • Chinese title: 射鵰英雄傳
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Anna Holmwood

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, fun adventure, and promising story -- but, as only the first quarter of the novel, annoyingly incomplete

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 22/2/2018 .
The Guardian . 16/3/2018 Marcel Theroux
Straits Times . 13/2/2018 Olivia Ho

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Anna Holmwood’s spirited translation, this action-packed and ideas-laden saga is as revealing of modern as of ancient China." - The Economist

  • "A plot summary barely conveys the extraordinary energy of this book. It blends real and fictional characters, teems with incident -- reversals, unexpected meetings, betrayals, cliffhangers -- and, most of all, dwells for page after page on lovingly described combat. To paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie: for those of us who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing we like. (...) It seems incredible that this is the first book in the Legends of the Condor Heroes series to come out in English, but better late than never. As I read Anna Holmwood’s vibrant translation -- gripped by the unashamed narrative zest and primary-coloured fairytale world -- I felt a slight regret that I was coming to this novel in my fifth decade." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "It gets off to a slow start. It is bumbling and can exasperate. But it is also earnest and brave, and one glimpses in it the potential to unlock something extraordinary. (...) While the translated text does not always flow well, it is oddly in the most complex fight scenes that Holmwood's rendition excels. (...) Despite the novel's flaws, there are truly stirring moments when the emotion of the original punches through." - Olivia Ho, Straits Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Legends of the Condor Heroes is being published in four volumes in the English translation; A Hero Born is the first of these.
       The novel opens in small Ox Village, near Lin'an (more or less modern-day Hangzhou) that was the Song dynasty capital -- and likely the most populous city in the world -- at the time (into the thirteenth century). The Song have lost much of their territory to the Jin (thanks to: "three generations of useless Emperors"), but still vastly outnumber them, and tensions between the two sides remain high.
       Recent arrivals Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang settled here after their hometown was invaded by the Jin. Their wives, Lily Li and Charity, are both pregnant, and an itinerant Taoist, Qiu Chuji, provides the future names for their children -- Guo Jing and Yang Kang --, leaves a pair of daggers for them, and promises to return in ten years to teach them some kung fu. He also riles things up, leading to a confrontation led by "the traitor Justice Duan", leading, apparently, also to the death of both Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang. Charity saved a man in the tumults -- someone just passing through, it turns out -- and he returns the favor; he turns out to be an important figure, a prince, Wanyan Honglie. Meanwhile, Justice Duan kidnapped Lily Li and drags her along through half the country, just ahead of his pursuers.
       Wanyan Honglie is also present when a: "martial family, often called the Seven Freaks of the South" reässembles -- and get in a confrontation of sorts with Qiu Chuji, who is certain they are harboring Lily Li and Charity. When all is said and done, at that point, none of them have the women, but Qiu Chuji proposes a long-term challenge to satisfy their honors: the Seven Freaks are to find Lily Li and Qiu Chuji is to find Charity, and then:

We will find them, make sure they are safe and help them with the birth. As the children grow and mature ... [.....] We will train them. Once they have reached the age of eighteen, we and other invited masters of the wulin will gather at the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals. First we will feast, and then our disciples will fight each other.
       It's a rather elaborate -- and extended -- way to hold a contest, but everyone is up for it, and they go their separate ways in search of their future charges.
       Lily Li escapes Justice Duan and makes it to Mongolia, where her son -- Guo Jing -- is born on the steppe. When the boy is six, he comes into the orbit of Temujin -- the future Genghis Khan -- and he grows up essentially at the court of these Mongols; A Hero Born very much focuses on his story, not that of the other child, Yang Kang, though of course they are destined to meet and battle it out when they reach eighteen.
       The Seven Freaks of the South -- reduced to six, but still mostly sticking to that name -- eventually reach Guo Jing and take him under their wing, without revealing the end-game they are preparing him for. Though he's a willing student, they are a bit disappointed by him, and worry about their chances of winning the contest: "The boy is not the most intelligent, but he's brave all the same". It is a lot to take in, too: each of the freaks has different talents, so he's learning a very mixed bag.
       Jumping ahead ten years, not much has changed: Guo Jing is still struggling with all the moves. Things do improve when another Taoist shows up: careful not to teach him any kung fu -- Guo Jing is the disciple of the Seven Freaks, and it would be unacceptable for him to take lessons on the side from another master (it would go against the: "code of the wulin") -- he nevertheless teaches the boy: "some techniques to strengthen his body and cultivate his mind, techniques by which followers of the Tao prolong life". At first the Freaks are suspicious of him, but they are pleased and surprised to learn his identity: he is Ma Yu, the elder martial brother of no less than Qiu Chuji, who dedicated himself more to meditation than the martial world (but is certainly also adept in that one).
       Temujin has not established himself as Genghis Khan yet at this time; indeed, there's considerable subtle jostling for power among the Mongols, complicated also by the Jin hovering nearby and trying to maneuver to maintain their hold over the Mongols. Among Temujin's local rivals is Ong Khan -- who is, however, also a sworn brother of Temujin's father -- and, more dangerously, his son Senggum. Senggum's son Tusakha is a bully who repeatedly confronts Guo Jing and Tolui, one of Temujin's sons (and Guo Jing's sworn brother). In an effort to bind the factions closer together, Temujin betroths his daughter Khojin to the obnoxious Tusakha -- while Khojin is much more attracted to Guo Jing.
       Guo Jing is able to prevent the worst from happening, but soon enough is headed south -- also for his rendezvous with destiny. Along the way, his head is quickly completely turned by Lotus Huang -- though the boy really proves to be a little dense in not immediately seeing through Lotus' poor-boy disguise: "there's something a little odd about his appearance and voice. Haven't you noticed ?" someone asks Guo Jing ..... (No, he hadn't noticed -- and is quite surprised when Lotus reveals herself as the beautiful girl she is; she is also a very talented kung fu fighter (who is, however, unwilling to reveal who her master is).)
       Finding trouble more easily than he should, Guo Jing sides with a man calling himself Mu Yi, who has been going around the countryside with his daughter, offering her in marriage to anyone who can defeat her with a single move. Wanyan Kang -- son of the prince, Wanyan Honglie -- wins, but then refuses to marry the girl, and then goes to some lengths to protect his name from dishonor in this awkward situation. Events soon conspire to find Mu Yi and his daughter captive in Wanyan Honglie's residence, Guo Jing and Lotus breaking in in search of some life-saving herbs (and then also to break out the two captives), and a wild-card, the Consort, Wanyan Honglie's wife, who comes to the aid of these parties.
       A Hero Born covers just the first quarter of the story of Legends of the Condor Heroes, coming to a close somewhat abruptly but at least paving some of the way ahead by finally clearing up much of the rest of the set-up story -- specifically, what became of Charity and the child she presumably bore, Yang Kang, in what is otherwise a fairly one-sided (i.e. only focused on Guo Jing) account. (It certainly shakes the story up a bit, and looks to be a promising foundation for what is to follow.)
       The build-up in A Hero Born is occasionally a bit awkward -- focused so much on Guo Jing, so detailed for some episodes and then jumping ahead by years (a whole decade, at one point) -- and the story is certainly convoluted at times, taking quite some effort to keep track of. Jin Yong juggles several evil parties -- some more evil than others, including the powerful Cyclone Mei -- but with them fading far into the background for long stretches it makes for some odd pacing. So, too, the novel is crowded in general, and it can be difficult keeping track of who is who -- especially given all the different connections between many of them, as well as the frequent use of pseudonyms --, even with a helpful character-list at the beginning of the book.
       The various master-fighters, from various schools, are the heart of the novel -- which is a martial-arts novel, after all -- and Jin Yong handles all this well, from the code the fighters live by -- honor mattering a great deal, and affecting many of the fights -- to the different abilities of the various fighters. From those able to almost effortlessly climb sheer cliff to the blind, who nevertheless have a keen sense of their opponents, the combat scenes are quite uniformly exciting -- with some amusing elements thrown in as well, including in one of Lotus' (extended) attempts to escape and how they are countered. The complex politics, jostling for power, and strategic alignments get a bit short shrift, despite being a significant source of tension and drama. Even Guo Jing feels ultimately a bit underdeveloped as a character, with the spotlight too often elsewhere before returning to him.
       Some of the novel's weaknesses will no doubt resolve themselves in the following volumes, but that doesn't help the (still-)stand-alone. It is a fun and quite exciting read -- but also only a sort of first step; true appreciation of the work will have to wait until it's available in its entirety.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2019

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A Hero Born: 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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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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