01/08/2009. Contributed by RJ Barker
pub: Pleasure Boat Studio. 334 page enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US). ISBN: 978-929355-34-1.
check out website: www.pleasureboatstudio.com- can be ordered direct off them.
When the former favourite poet of the imperial court, Li Bo, is exiled after losing his talent, he embarks upon a quest to the furthest reaches of the empire in order to try and regain his skill. Unknowingly, he comes into the possession of a powerful and dangerous sword and a dream telling him to take it to the mysterious Mount Wu.
Also fleeing the imperial court is the Emperor's Grand Shamaness who has left without permission after narrowly escaping an assassin's blade. The Shamaness is pursued not just by the thwarted assassin, but also by a host of imperial agents. The paths of Li Bo and Shamaness cross, each thwarting the progress of the other. As they progress up the river, they inadvertently attract the attention of an evil spirit of the river, a powerful blood dragon, who recognises the sword as the means of seizing power and heavenly immortality for himself.
Li and the Shamaness recognise one another and become allies, recruiting an imperial agent to their aid against the blood dragon and the albino assassin who pursues them. After the Shamaness manages to fight off and injure the blood dragon, her defences are weakened and the albino is able to strike once more killing her then driven off by Li Bo before he can take the trophy he needs to claim his prize.
All seems lost and it is only a matter of time before either the assassin or the dragon return to finish Li off, but with the aid of an imperial agent Li manages to get to the mountain with the body of the Shamaness and the sword. The dragon follows them up the sacred mountain and manages to catch Li before he reaches the summit, unaware that Li is unable to release the sword from its scabbard, the Dragon is still cautious of its power and is tricked into releasing it for Li who then uses it to kill him.
The Shamaness ascends to become one of the immortals, as do Li's companions who were killed by the blood dragon along the way. Li Bo regains his poetic talent, eventually ascending to become an immortal when he dies years later.
I'm not a student of Chinese history. Neither am I acquainted with 'Daoism' in anything more than the most passing way. Both of these facts colour my review of a book which I found both impenetrable and overly simplistic. It may be that the form of storytelling used is a homage to a form of classical Chinese storytelling. The author is a professor of Chinese history and it's clear that his understanding of his subject is deep and heartfelt. This doesn't make it great fiction. In fact that familiarity can be a drawback and often this book reads more like a translation than modern fiction.
If you do have an understanding of Chinese 'Wuxia' literature you may love this book. Without it, I suspect you'll be bored. The writing is very simple in form, often seeming as if the writer presumes the reader is familiar with the images presented. This means you are repeatedly confronted with scenes that seem to have more going on apart from the obvious. However, if you don't have the mythological vocabulary you'll probably end up like me, scratching your head and, in the end, frustrated.
I worried whether I was missing something when reviewing this but in the end decided it doesn't really matter. Even if the book is told in the form of a Chinese fable/poem that I'm unfamiliar with, it doesn't succeed in making it accessible for a western reader. It comes across as stilted and uncomfortable to read and there's a lot of 'telling' rather than showing.
As such, for me it's either a niche book for a small and select readership or one that has failed in the task it set out to perform.
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