My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length: 336 pages
Release date: 5 June 2018
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom … until she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father as they flee from their enemies across the vast Mongol Empire. On the run, with adversaries on all sides and an endless journey ahead, Jinghua hatches a scheme to use the Kipchaks’ exile to return home, a plan that becomes increasingly fraught as her feelings for Khalaf evolve into a hopeless love.
Jinghua’s already dicey prospects take a downward turn when Khalaf seeks to restore his kingdom by forging a marriage alliance with Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. As beautiful as she is cunning, Turandokht requires all potential suitors to solve three impossible riddles to win her hand—and if they fail, they die.
Jinghua has kept her own counsel well, but with Khalaf’s kingdom—and his very life—on the line, she must reconcile the hard truth of her past with her love for a boy who has no idea what she’s capable of … even if it means losing him to the girl who’d sooner take his life than his heart.
“Each one of us is fostering an impossible hope, and each hope opposes the other two. We are a trio of lunatics.”
With a touch of Renée Ahdieh and S. Jae-Jones, Megan Bannen’s debut shines with passion for the historical subject matter that she elevates into a timeless tragic romance. Yet for all its lush writing, The Bird and the Blade fails to add enough to the Puccini opera Turandot to escape the weary sense of “been there, done that.”
For sure, the story tugs at the heartstrings in a way that only epics about love and death can do. But that’s nothing new. It’s exactly what Turandot the opera does. The Bird and the Blade adheres so strictly to Puccini that it feels more like telling than retelling. It reframes events from the perspective of the opera’s slave girl and fleshes out her backstory, but leaves the core plot and tone untouched, save for the distinction that Bannen’s novel has rather more historical awareness.
Turandot, of course, wasn’t written with historical or cultural accuracy in mind. The opera uses China only as an exotic tapestry where the audience’s imagination could comfortably take flight. So Bannen’s clear regard for the context around the Mongol conquest of the Song Dynasty is a welcome start: The Bird and the Blade feels like somewhat legitimate Ming Dynasty historical fiction instead of a dramatised, romanticising vision of a foreign land. To Bannen’s credit, this book includes a meticulously detailed afterword addressing fact and fiction, pointing out every inconspicuous anachronism with great care. I strongly recommend taking the time to read this section after completing the novel.
Jinghua, Khalaf and Timur make for a fascinating trio of lead characters. Jinghua, the novel’s narrator, is Lin’an nobility turned slave girl to the Kipchak Khanate. Prince Khalaf is the studious and unnaturally compassionate heir to the Kipchak Khanate. And Timur, his father, is by all standards a morally awful person, but it’s hard not to have as much fun reading the character as Bannen likely had writing him. They make for a unique dynamic in YA, supported by witty dialogue and Jinghua’s extremely perceptive narration. These three figures are wonderfully developed.
Turandokht not so much. As hard as it tries, The Bird and the Blade is unable to translate her from opera to the page. Whereas the trio are humanised, transformed from a framework of ideas into lifelike people, Turandokht remains an icy, larger-than-life symbol of everything Jinghua can’t have. On some level, that makes sense, because the novel shows everything from Jinghua’s POV. But it seems a missed opportunity that while The Bird and the Blade breathes realism into Jinghua and Khalaf’s backstories, all the scenes involving Turandokht are left awkwardly in folklore’s surreal state. After all, Turandokht didn’t start as the heartless riddle-giver of opera–she was likely based on the very real Mongol warrior Khutulun, who would have been a superb place to start for an author seeking to craft a more authentic Turandokht.
On prose alone, The Bird and the Blade delivers. Megan Bannen simply writes well. She includes a few too many dream sequences and quoted poems, but for the most part strikes a good balance between action and reflection. It’s an added benefit that none of the action is sanitised. The 13th century wasn’t a kind time to the vast majority of people, and Bannen shows brutality with both honesty and tact.
With all its admirable qualities, it’s ultimately The Bird and the Blade‘s strict adherence to its source material that comes across a bit disappointing. As more and more YA retellings are published, I find myself wondering if we won’t see the genre go the way of blockbusters, where all the top successes have become reboots, remakes and adaptations. In literature, there’s obviously nothing wrong with reimagining a story–some of the greatest works reused preexisting plots. It’s just that The Bird and the Blade would have made a stronger mark if it dared to change the story beyond window dressing, in the way of YA retellings The Wrath and the Dawn or Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.