I have previously discussed Zheng Feng’s first publishing success, Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero. While that was her first published novel, this novel is actually the first novel she wrote, though after publishing Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero she made major revisions to this one before publication. She said that, of the two, this novel was much more difficult to write, partially because she would often weep while revising it. I can believe it. In fact, she thinks she made Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero so breezy to compensate for the solemness of this novel.
So, what is this novel about?
The martial arts world is being menaced by the ever-growing Fire Cult. So some people try to divine how to defeat the Fire Cult. They get a prophecy, which says that to extinguish the fire (as in the Fire Cult), the spirit sword must weep.
The story starts with a boy who has the power to read other people’s minds and to sometimes see the future (yep, psychic powers). Yet even though he can sometimes see the future, he doesn’t know about his own past – he has no memory of anything that happened to him before he was five years old, and knows nothing whatsoever about his parents. Furthermore, his body is covered with strange marks. He doesn’t even know his own family name – only his nickname, ‘Ming’er’.
Meanwhile, the Fire Cult is taking over the world with its kung fu, assisted by the psychic powers of its charismatic yet monomaniacal leader, Duan Dusheng. And for some reason, the Fire Cult is seeking out Ling Xiao, a former cult member who betrayed them. Yet Ming’er knows Ling Xiao’s father, Ling Manjiang and knows that he and Ling Xiao are about the same age … how could a little boy been a member of the cult, let alone do something so terrible that the cult would still be searching for him years later.
As it so happens, while Ming’er lives with Ling Manjiang, Ling Manjiang has a relationship with a woman, and she dies after giving birth to a daughter, Ling Yun. Ling Manjiang leaves, telling Ming’er to treat Ling Yun as his own sister.
Well, as a teenager, Ming’er finally figures it out … this ‘Ling Xiao’ boy is none other than himself. His mother was mad that Ling Manjiang was falling in love with another woman, so she left him and entered the Fire Cult. Duan Dusheng recognized Ling Xiao’s psychic powers, and decided to steal them. However, in order to make use of them, Duan Dusheng had to subject Ling Xiao to heavy-duty physical torture. His mother regretted bringing her son into the Fire Cult, so she made him drink a potion which made him lose all of his memories, sent him to a safe place. The cult punished her with torture and death. During the novel, Ling Xiao occasionally angsts over the fact that he doesn’t have a single memory of the mother who made such a sacrifice for him.
And of course, because he is in fact Ling Xiao, Ling Yun happens to be his biological half-sister.
This is only the beginning of course (this novel is over a thousand pages long), but I think this is enough to get the idea. Oh, and if you don’t know Chinese, you might want to know what the meaning of the prophecy is, right?
[MAJOR SPOILER WARNING]
At some point Duan Dusheng had loses his psychic powers, but he is still practically invincible because of a special kung-fu power. But to maintain this invicibility, he needs to regularly sexually assault young women. Most of these women die, and the ones who survive usually go mad. Now, if somebody interrupted the kung-fu ceremony, Duan Dusheng would temporarily lose his invincibility, but he’s not going to let anybody get close enough to do such a thing (well, except for his victim, since the victim has to be nearby for the ceremony to work, but trying to get into the ceremony this way is a suicidal mission).
So, during the course of the novel, Ling Xiao falls in love with a woman called Qin Yanlong, whose backstory is even more complicated than Ling Xiao’s. She has observed that, in spite of all of the suffering Ling Xiao has endured, he’s not a bitter guy at all, and it’s really difficult to make him angry. In fact, he doesn’t even hate Duan Dusheng. He is so used to being tormented that he thinks it’s normal … yet he won’t allow anyone he loves to suffer. The only time he ever wanted to kill anybody is when he thought that his beloved sister, Ling Yun, had been assaulted and tortured, and the only time he ever weeped was when he thought she herself (Qin Yanlong) was dead or dying.
Qin Yanlong eventually realizes that the ‘spirit sword’ mentioned in the prophecy is Ling Xiao himself. And she puts two and two together.
[END MAJOR SPOILER WARNING]
How it Works as a Prequel
So, since I had read Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero first, I knew how things were going to end up in this story. That did not reduce the suspense. It might have actually increased the suspense, since I knew exactly how terrible things were going to get the for the main characters.
Yet there were many surprises. For example, when Qin Yanlong was first introduced as Cheng Da’s young male companion, my reaction was ‘WTH’, because a) in Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, Qin Yanlong is female and b) in Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, Qin Yanlong is paired with Ling Xiao, whereas Cheng Da is paired with Ji Huohe (to the extent you could call it a pair, since they were both had other partners).
And, as a fan of Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, I greatly enjoyed seeing the characters from that novel appear in this one, though I personally would have liked to have seen more of Ji Huohe (Zheng Feng says that she plans to write a novel about Cheng Da one day … I hope we might see more of Ji Huohe in that one). Learning more about their backgrounds, particularly Qin Yanlong’s background, was also a fannish delight.
Yet it is remarkable just how different this novel is from Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero considering that many of the same characters appear in both. Whereas Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero is fleet-footed and humorous (well, it’s can also pretty grim, but the grim parts tend to be brief), Spirit Sword is somber and tragic. And it was much harder to get into Sprit Sword. I was hooked on Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero by page 10, but it took over a hundred pages for me to really get sucked into Sprit Sword.
And while Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero is definitely more fun, Spirit Sword feels like a deeper experience. I cried a lot more while reading this novel. I think it’s because of the pain level. While Ling Haotian and Zhao Guan have to suffer quite a bit in Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero, it’s not in the same league as what Ling Xiao and Qin Yanlong endure in Sprit Sword.
The fact that Zheng Feng has written two such different yet wonderful novels had only deepened my admiration for her.
The Intoxicating Atmosphere
It’s really hard to describe the feel of this novel. It’s … a lot like classic fairy tales, (the originals from Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, etc … not the Disney versions). Those old fairy tales are often bizarre and, frankly, cruel when you take a cold look at them. Yet they form such striking impressions in one’s mind … blood red and snow white and all.
A lot of this novel like that. If you actually pause (like I did when I was trying to put in the description) you think ‘what the jianghu is that?!’ For example, while Ling Xiao is being tortured and slowly dying from the curse Duan Dusheng put on him, a woman comes into his dreams and relieves the symptoms of the curse, and Ling Xiao falls in love with her. That could come straight from a fairy-tale; a curse that kills slowly, and the mysterious dream woman who eases the pain. Or, for example, the time Qin Yanlong comes back bloodied up. It turns out that she had become friends with a tiger and her cubs, but when the tiger threatened Ling Yun, she ended up killing her friend (the tiger), getting heavily wounded herself, and begs Ling Xiao to take care of the orphaned cubs because she’s in no condition to raise them herself.
But life is like that. Or at least, a life worth living. Surprises happen. Great emotions get stirred by striking events. Whether it’s a 80 tall waterfall, or hearing that your great-aunt saw two of her children die, a full life is marked by punctures to mundane.
This novel is a bit like Please Save My Earth, and I’m not talking about the psychic powers. It sounds ridiculous when you summarize it, but makes total sense while actually experiencing it … and it just sucks you in with the complex character backgrounds and (often messed-up) interactions.
Availability in English
Ha ha ha ha ha.
I think you have all figured out by now that I love this novel. I’m now sad that there is currently only one un-read Zheng Feng novel left for me … but Zheng Feng is still an active writer, so I look forward to reading whatever she writes as long as her pen (or keyboard) keeps moving.
Next Time: The Love Eterne (movie)
Sara K. really did see an 80m high waterfall today. In fact, she saw a lot of waterfalls today. And rainbows. And mountains shrouded with clouds. And forest-blanked hills. And a clear, blue, cascading stream. And … you get the idea.
Estara saysOctober 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm
Please save my earth – and Ling Xiao is Mokuren? A pity it’s not available in a language I can read. But admittedly I’d rather read the first novel of the author’s that you introduced here. I cry far too easily for book characters anyway.
Estara saysOctober 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm
Also: *landscape envy*
Sara K. saysOctober 10, 2012 at 9:24 am
The place I went that day is Wulai:
Estara saysOctober 10, 2012 at 10:18 am
Wow, so often when I started reading manga and watching anime, fantasy anyway, I thought that certain landscapes had to be invented, but the more I see of Asia the more I realise that all those landscapes exist, they’re just spread around.
Sara K. saysOctober 12, 2012 at 10:22 am
Yeah, well when it’s live action, the landscapes are obviously real. For example, in this video, you can see some nice scenery starting around the 5-minute mark:
In fact, the scenery is so nice that I suspect that, even though this video only shows Hong Kong TV shows, this particular TV show was filmed in China.
See, among Hong Kong vs. China vs. Taiwan TV shows, the Chinese TV shows are noted for having the best scenery, Hong Kong the worst, and Taiwan in between. To that, I say, ‘of COURSE the Chinese shows will have the best scenery, they have *China* available to them’. While even Hong Kong has some sweet scenery, it’s limited and the same stuff gets filmed again and again and again and again. Taiwan has plenty of spectacular scenery, but much of it is not so accessible to film crews (I presume one would need a road to haul the equipment efficiently), and the accessible places (like Wulai) are often so well known that audiences would spot them pretty quickly. Of course, the producers might not care if the audiences recognize the location. And in Fated to Love You they made a good compromise … they picked Zhentoushan / Shimen reservoir for their scenic locations which, while recognizable by a lot of people (including me), plenty of people in Taiwan haven’t seen it and don’t recognize it.
Estara saysOctober 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm
For me as someone who has never been to Asia it’s all beautiful in a different way from what I know. I remember you commenting on their nifty use of scenery in your Fated to Love You posts.
Sara K. saysOctober 10, 2012 at 9:34 am
While I think the feel of Spirit Sword is a bit like Boku-tama, I don’t it’s really possible to make correlations between the characters. Yes, Ling Xiao has some Mokut ren-like qualities … but so does Qi Yanlong.
I mean, Qin Yanlong’s grandmother was the a divinely ordained leader of the Snow tribe, and she came back t to tribe after wandering around China for a few years, pregnant with Qin Yanlong’s mother. Then Qin Yanlong’s mother spent some time wandering around China … and came back to the tribe, again, pregnant (with Qin Yanlong herself). Since her mother was not the divinely ordained leader, the tribe used the pregnancy as a pretext to exile her from the tribe (they always thought of her as an outsider because her father was Chinese). Qin Yanlong blamed the tribe for her mother’s early death (and for hiding the fact that her mother was dying from her so that Qin Yanlong did not have the opportunity to be at her mother’s side during her last days) … and Qin Yanlong was eventually revealed to be the divinely ordained leader. Then the tribe tries to make Qin Yanlong get married so that she won’t run off to China and get pregnant like her grandmother and mother … and since Qin Yanlong doesn’t want to get forced into marriage, she runs away and … goes to China and runs around with a charming young man. Yet in spite of hanging out with a couple of appealing young me, she stays celibate, and she at one point says she doesn’t know why she remained celibate. Then again, she also says one of her greatest fears is that, if she has a child, her child won’t really have a father, just as she didn’t really have a father and her mother didn’t really have a father.
And that’s the simplified version. I left a lot of the details out. I said Qin Yanlong’s backstory was more complicated than Ling Xiao’s. Anyway, this whole business seems just a teensy bit like Mokuren’s story, even though Qin Yanlong’s personality is quite different.
Estara saysOctober 10, 2012 at 10:19 am
Ah, you mean like Mokuren’s parents love wasn’t approved of either and neither was she, even though the leader of her religion doted on her? I can see that. An interesting mix.
Sara K. saysOctober 12, 2012 at 2:45 am
Yeah, that’s what I mean (and the fact both Mokuren and Qin Yanlong are both Special Girls Who Protect the Tribe/World). Though now that I’m thinking about it, when it comes to personalities, Ling Xiao is more Mokuren-like that Qin Yanlong. Qin Yanlong’s personality is … a bit like Shion’s actually, though much less repulsive (for example, [trigger warning] whereas Shion actually rapes Mokuren, Qin Yanlong merely tricks Ling Xiao into thinking that she had raped and impregnated his sister Ling Yun … Qin Yanlong and the Snow tribe had actually treated Ling Yun quite well).
Estara saysOctober 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm
Yes that emotional personality is what I thought your comparison with Please Save my Earth meant. I’m happy that the eventual main pair don’t have to deal with rape. I never understood how Mokuren could accept Shion’s love after that. In their reborn versions on earth, fair enough, but not in their life on the moon.
Sara K. saysOctober 18, 2012 at 4:59 am
Well … actually ….
Ling Xiao does marry Qin Yanlong without her consent (he marries her while she is unconscious). To her credit, Qin Yanlong walks out on him as soon as she is capable of doing so. She eventually goes back to him, but it would have been really out of character if she hadn’t walked out at all from *that* (as for why Ling Xiao was marrying Qin Yanlong without her consent … that’s a whole ‘nother twisted subplot…)
Estara saysOctober 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm
For some reason I have less of a problem with marrying without consent than raping! Probably because I’m not married myself ^^.