The Chinese Lord of the Rings - Now in English for the first time.
In the Jin capital of Zhongdu, Guo Jing learns the truth of his father's death and finds he is now betrothed, against his will, to two women. Neither of them is his sweetheart, Lotus Huang.
Torn between following his heart and fulfilling his filial duty, he journeys through the country of his parents with Lotus, encountering mysterious martial heroes and becoming drawn into the struggle for the supreme martial text, the Nine Yin Manual. But his past is catching up with him. The widow of an evil man he accidentally killed as a child has tracked him down, intent on revenge.
Meanwhile, his true parentage at last revealed, Yang Kang, the young prince Guo Jing must face in the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, is forced to choose his destiny. Will he continue to enjoy the life of wealth and privilege afforded to him by the invader of his homeland, or give up all he has known to avenge his parents? Translated from the Chinese by Gigi Chang.
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“black hair in the morning, white in the evening”
A Bond Undone (2019), the second volume of Jin Yong’s four-volume historical fantasy kung fu bildungsroman epic Legends of the Condor Heroes (1957-59), takes up in mid-cliffhanger where the first one, A Hero Born (2018), left off. Lotus Huang is still trapped in the palace of the Sixth Prince of the Jin Empire, having to use her quick wits, feminine wiles, martial skills, and hedgehog chainmail to fight through challenges from six traitor Song masters. Guo Jing is in a charnel pit with the blind and now crippled Iron Corpse Cyclone Mei, who, after whipping Liang the Jinseng Immortal, clamps a Nine Yin Skeleton Claw grip on Guo Jing’s windpipe to make him carry her on his back and enters a poignant memory-fugue monologue. And the Jin princeling Wanyan Kang continues to take poorly the news that a wandering Song farmer is his real father, not the Sixth Jin Prince.
The second volume is at least as exciting, funny, moving, and entertaining as the first. There are many colorful characters and impressive scenes, among them Iron Corpse recalling her intense relationships with her dead husband and her betrayed shifu (teacher); Lotus Huang cooking delectable dishes for the gourmand Northern Beggar Count Seven Hong; students, teachers, and foes reuniting at Roaming Cloud Manor; Guo Jing disastrously meeting his lover’s father (who “refused to plant a sprig of blossoms in a pile of cow dung”); Apothecary Huang and the Western Venom Viper Ouyang dueling with flute and zither; the childlike Hoary Urchin playing a trick on Guo Jing; and Guo Jing and Gallant Ouyang competing in three rigged trials for Lotus Huang.
The novel continues the education of the simple and slow but good and persistent Guo Jing in the context of the Jin Empire trying to finish subsuming the Song Empire via skullduggery and Mongols. Separated from his primary teachers (the Seven Freaks of the South), Guo Jing goes on to learn the Dragon Subduing Palm repertoire from the Northern Beggar and the Competing Hands technique from the Hoary Urchin. And he continues learning about life from Lotus, as when she puzzles him by comparing a colorful lake, mountain, and sunset cloud landscape to a monochrome ink painting.
Part of Guo Jing’s education concerns an artifact reminiscent of Tolkien’s One Ring: The Nine Yin Manual. This old, unique hand-written manuscript reputedly describes and explains every known inner and outer kung fu move and countermove and thus for years has been sought, stolen, and fought over by martial artists, and even the most moral possessors can never quite bring themselves to burn it. “Flummoxed by how a book could cause so much havoc and ruin so many lives,” Guo Jing views it as an evil work, while the Hoary Urchin believes it to be a force for good. “It was worn and weathered from years of use and rough handling. The once white paper had yellowed. Its corners and edges were dogeared and creased. The words were obscured by smudges from hands and spots of water damage. Was it tears or tea? And the blots of purplish black. Were they blood?” The Manual plays a richly ironic and thematic role in the A Bond Undone.
Like the first volume, the second features umpteen wuxia action scenes, with weapons ranging from hands, feet, swords, and spears to chopsticks, needles, coins, and tunes. On display are Jin Yong’s fanciful names for techniques (e.g., Dragon Subduing Palm, Exploding Toad, and Luminous Hollow Fist) and moves (e.g., Swirling Leaf, Black Tiger Steals the Harp, Hands Stretched for Charity, Haughty Dragon Repents, Wayfaring Fist, and Nodding Phoenix). Much action like this: “Mei swung her arm in a horizontal swipe known as Torrent and Tempest from the Cascading Peach Blossom Palm repertoire. The air parted with a whoosh.” The Northern Beggar even parodies such nomenclature by referring to the Ginseng Immortal’s Gibbon Climbs the Tree move as a Bare-Assed Monkey Climbs the Tree.
The appendix explains that Chinese philosophies like Taoism and the I Ching inspire different kinds of kung fu, which, although often superhuman in effect, is an art with application to life, as reflected in lines like, “Absence trumps excess,” “The firm cannot endure the supple,” and “It is only through the simplest dish that a chef’s true skill is revealed. The same goes for the martial arts.” Indeed, cooking and kung fu are closely related in the novel, which serves some delicious and enticing dishes like bok choy stir fried in chicken fat, eight treasures duck, and Made for Each Other Broth. Martial and graphic arts are also related, as when Lotus Huang and Guo Jing observe an ink painting: “The powerful brushwork slashed like a sword and quivered with pent up force, as if each stroke could pierce through the paper and take flight.”
The relationship between Guo Jing and Lotus Huang continues to charm, for they love each other so purely and complement each other’s strong and weak points so well. When she’s not saving him from nefarious enemies or leading him into dangerous situations, she teaches him to appreciate food, ink painting, and nature. The lovers were made for each other.
Jin Yong writes great lines, whether evoking humor (“Brother, perhaps you’re a little obsessed with the martial arts”), love (“He decided not to interrupt this perfect image of sleep and turned his attention to counting her eyelashes”), loss (“Like my heart, he turned to ice”), or human nature (“There are some exceptionally clever people in this world. But . . . nothing good—no indeed, only the very rotten—comes of running into one of their kind”).
With his superb reading of the audiobooks, Daniel York Loh enhances the consistency of the fine English translations by Anna Holmwood for the first volume and by Gigi Chang for the second. Never over-dramatizing, he always uses the right touch for the different characters and situations. His reading of Iron Corpse’s monologue is splendid, alternating between her malevolent kung fu hag rasp in the present and her pure teenage voice in the past. His reading makes up for the audiobook lacking the notes of the physical book.
At one point the Hoary Urchin asks Guo Jing, “As long as they’re amusing, what’s the difference between real events and good stories?” A Bond Undone is amusing. I can’t wait to read the third volume of Legends of the Condor Heroes. After all, this one ends on another cliffhanger, and as a poem quoted in the novel implies, I’m not getting younger:
Sitting by the blossoms, wine in hand,
I wish to ask my gentle friend,
Is there a way to hold on to spring?
If only spring could be persuaded to stay.
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