Book Review: A Hero Born, by Jin Yong
Oh hey, I still have a blog, don’t I?
First off, I should note that I Am Fine(tm). So if you were wondering if my sudden lack of posting was on account of medical stuff, rest easy. I’m lucky in that I’m in a place where I can just hunker down and ride things out ’til things go back to some semblance of normal. Which, uh, may be awhile.
But! The irony is, while I’ve got more free time nowadays, I … haven’t been reading as much. Go figure. I suppose a lot of it comes from the fact that I’ve got a bunch of OTHER distractions close at hand. So, y’know, if anybody wants to hear my thoughts on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, or my misadventures in bread-baking, or why Pyre is just the most fun I’ve had with a video game in a long time, lemme know. It probably didn’t help that the books I was reading before things started getting dicey were … not all that enthralling. Mmf.
So! In an effort to get myself out of that rut, I went ahead and bought some NEW books– one of which was Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, translated by Anna Holmwood.
Though technically, A Hero Born isn’t a complete novel. In fact, it’s just the first part of the multi volume “Legend of the Condor Heroes” series, first serialized from 1957 to 1959 in a Hong Kong newspaper. The Legend of the Condor Heroes (or Condor Trilogy, as it’s sometimes called) is pretty much THE seminal modern wuxia novel. It’s been directly adapted into dozens of kung fu movies over the years, and its influence stretches even longer than that in establishing tropes and character types that’s been drawn on by literal thousands of other works. Secret techniques, wily old kung fu masters, training montages, it’s all there. Basically, it’s The Lord of the Rings of getting kicked in the head.
A Hero Born is ostensibly a historical novel, set during the late 12th/Early 13th century, and centered on the conflict between the Jin Dynasty, the Song Dynasty, and the rise of a dude named Genghis Khan. The titular hero being born is a guy by the name of Guo Jing, the son of Chinese patriots who, after various convoluted shenanigans, winds up being raised in the house (well, yurt) of Genghis Khan, and trained in various styles of kung fu by a ragtag band of martial artists known as the Seven Freaks of the South. The Seven Freaks were my favorite characters of the bunch– they’ve got this ‘quirky D&D party’ aspect to them. There’s the blind master, a sneaky pickpocket who fights with an iron fan, a dwarf who’s the greatest horseman alive, and so on, and so forth.
For equally convoluted reasons, the Seven Freaks train Guo Jing (for twelve years!) to fight the student of one of their rivals, a wily old Taoist priest. And eventually, they send Guo Jing southward in order to face his opponent and prove who has the best kung fu. This … is honestly oversimplifying the plot, as A Hero Born deals with dozens of different characters all interconnected in a web of family ties and sworn brotherhoods and rivalries and so on. Though honestly once you get past that kind of thing, A Hero Born is your typical ‘boy gets trained, goes out on an adventure, and gets into all kinds of trouble on the way’ kind of story. It’s just that instead of wizards teaching spells, it’s kung fu masters throwing around techniques with names like “Nine Yin Skeleton Claw.”
Those technique names are part of the fun– though one of the odd things about A Hero Born is that Yong tosses around terms like “Branch Beats the White Chimpanzee” or “Protector Skanda Defends Evil” fairly willy-nilly. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with Chinese idioms and/or martial arts to know if these names are just tossed in for flavor, or if the intended Chinese audience would be expected to know them, or what. Still kind of fun, either way. And that’s BEFORE one gets into the difference between “external” and “internal” kung fu. Basically, A Hero Born more or less is set in a mythical China where “kung fu” is more or less magic (and that’s before you get into weird immortality potions or whatever).
(Okay, so that’s a movie adaptation of a later book in the series, but it’s still freakin’ bonkers).
Holmwood’s translation of A Hero Born is solid and straightforward, though not too terribly dry. Working with this kind of subject matter has got to be challenging, and Holmwood does her best to keep things moving. Then again, the appeal of a work like A Hero Born isn’t in the lyrical prose (though I wonder what it’s like in the original Chinese), so much as the multiple turnabouts and cliffhangers and such.
Although, speaking of which, A Hero Born just kind of … ends. As again, this is just the first part of a multi-volume series, so I guess it had to end somewhere? It’s funny, as the book keeps building up to Guo Jing’s destined confrontation, but it veers away at the last second. In fact, the last quarter or so of the book is mostly various characters chasing each other around a palace, yet still somehow manages to drag a bit. It feels a bit anti-climactic, but then again, a lot of old Shaw Bros movies will just immediately stop after the final kung fu fight.
So yeah. I’m looking forward to reading more of Holmwood’s translations as they come out. This said, I dare say that at least a passing familiarity with Chinese literature and/or pulp kung fu cinema will definitely help the reader have some idea of just what the hell is going on. So, y’know, maybe watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before you pick this book up.
Or heck, watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon anyway, ’cause it’s just so stupidly good.
Something tells me you might have the time.