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.