The Book and the Sword: A Martial Arts Novel

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Oxford University Press, 2004 - Literary Collections - 511 pages
15 Reviews
"The Book and the Sword was Louis Cha's first novel, published in 1955. The story has a panoramic sweep which has at its heart a few unbeatable themes: secret societies, kung fu masters, and the sensational rumour so dear to Chinese hearts that the great Manchu Emperor Qian Long was not in fact a Manchu but a Han Chinese, a line of descent that came about as a result of a 'baby swap' on the part of the Chens of Haining in Southern China. It mixes in the exotic flavours of central Asia, a lost city in the desert guarded by wolf packs, and the Fragrant Princess. This lady is an embellishment of an actual historical figure - although whether she actually smelled of flowers, we will never know." --Book Jacket.

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     Louis Cha's novel, "The Book and the Sword," was originally written for serialization in Cha's Hong Kong newspaper. Writing for serialization does not necessarily harm a book (as in the case of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"), but it does cause a problem for Cha.
     The first 300 pages of the novel are very episodic and lack overall direction. The book introduces a great many kung fu masters, members of the Red Flower Society, a band of Chinese nationalist outlaws who oppose the Manchu government. In their adventures, they routinely outclass their opponents in terms of martial skill, but they suffer setbacks due to bad luck, trickery, or the sheer number and resources of the people pitted against them. Nevertheless, there are enough Red Flower Society heroes that they never really feel like the underdogs, and I found myself often rooting for the hapless Imperial guards and members of the security agency, all of whom were far more likely to suffer defeat and violent death at the hands of the Red Flower heroes than the reverse.
     The abundance of heroes presents other problems for Cha. Only a handful are provided with real personality and rich characterization: most are flat presences who are most memorable only for their colorful nicknames, like "Crocodile Jiang" or "Melancholy Ghost Shi." Also, whenever one or two heroes are separated from the group and begin to face genuine challenges, other Red Flower heroes repeatedly swoop in and save the day, a Deus Ex Machina which denies the beleaguered heroes a chance to overcome their challenges through cleverness.
     The plot meanders from one event to the next, without exposing any sort of grand plan or design. There are a few elements introduced early on which are important later (such as a knife containing a "secret" which was given to one of the main characters), but it is not clear that Cha had any idea what these elements would ultimately be used for at the time he introduced them.
     The book begins to pick up around page 302, when the red flower society helmsman, Chen, meets a young Uighur woman on his travels toward the Uigher frontier lands. At this point, the problems with "too many heroes" largely vanish, and the characters are forced to be more self-sufficient. The book really hits its stride around page 380, which marks the start of a genuinely fun and interesting adventure involving a legendary, hidden city, a mountain made of jade, and incomprehensibly large and dangerous wolf packs. This adventure leads directly into the book's final scenes and major confrontations, which are the intellectual highlight of the book. The final scenes add depth and meaning to what had been a light adventure story, including weighty moral choices which may seem slightly askew from (but not completely alien to) the standard Western conception of morality.
     The part of the book after page 300 is quite good and would earn 4 or 5 stars if rated on its own. As it is, I give the book 3 stars: a compromise between its shallow, episodic beginning and its strong, intriguing end.

Review: The Book and the Sword (The Book and The Sword)

User Review  - Roanne Araneta - Goodreads

Thank the freakin Zeus I've finally finished reading this book! Never again. CHEN JIALUO YOU... YOU FOUL... YOU EVIL MOTHERFUCKER! I CANNOT FIND WORDS FOUL ENOUGH TO DESCRIBE THIS CRINGING BIT OF ... Read full review


Chapter 2Eagles Claws and Iron Balls Love Fever Rescue
Chapter 3The Helmsman keeps the Peace The Demons Mark
Chapter 4Lute and Fan A Pleasant Outing on the Lake At

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About the author (2004)

Earnshaw is editor-in-chief of Xinhua Finance, managing director of SinoMedia, Ltd. and a director and founder of Park 97 in Shanghai. He speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, and taught himself to read Chinese.

Leslie McGrath's interviews with poets appear regularly in "The Writer's Chronicle". Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry, she is the author of "Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage" (2009), a poetry collection, and two chapbooks: "Toward Anguish" (2007) and "By the Windpipe" (2014.) Her poems have appeared in "The Awl, Agni, The Common, Slate", and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and literature at Central Connecticut State University, and is series editor of The Tenth Gate, a new poetry imprint of The Word Works press.

John Minford studied Chinese at Oxford and has taught in China, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

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