Published by HarperCollins on June 5th 2018
Buy on Amazon
“Should you fail to answer correctly each riddle by the end of seven minutes, you shall forfeit your life. Do you understand?”
Mongolian fantasy with ghosts and riddles, anyone?
Well, this was pretty damn fascinating! I’ve been putting this book off because I’ve been so disappointed with almost every YA fantasy novel I read lately, but this was like nothing I’ve read before. It’s a strange and stunning combination of the Mongol Empire, the Italian opera Turandot, and Persian fairy tales.
I should point out that this contains a lot of fantastical elements and the author acknowledges all the liberties she took in the note at the end. If you’re looking for an accurate historical depiction of the Mongol Empire and the Song dynasty– this isn’t it. Many of the characters, though, are based on real people.
Bannen splits the narrative in an extremely compelling way. In the present, Prince Khalaf, a descendant of Genghis Khan, attempts to solve the three riddles presented to him by Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. If he succeeds, he will get to marry her. If he fails, he will die. This is all told from the perspective of Jinghua, a Chinese slave who we soon discover is in love with Khalaf. Jinghua’s narrative then skips to the past, filling in the events leading up to that moment.
From what I can tell – as I’m only slightly familiar with the opera Turandot – the author sticks fairly close to the original, with the exception that she focuses more on the character of the slave girl. In this book, Jinghua is given far more depth and agency, and the author develops an interesting backstory for her that gives the tale another layer. Jinghua also considers what it is to be a woman or girl in this time (the 13th century), especially one who is enslaved, and laments the obsession with beauty that sees unattractive girls viewed as worthless.
It’s quite romantic, to tell you the truth, but I did not mind so much. The love story is balanced out by a good amount of action and political intrigue, and I liked how Jinghua’s attraction to Khalaf is based on his personality, not his looks. Khalaf is also flawed, even cowardly at times, allowing for more complexity of character than is usually afforded to YA fantasy love interests.
There’s so many stories within the story, too. The Bird and the Blade feels like a beautiful celebration of poetry, songs and stories from all across Central and East Asia. There are many quotes and retellings of tales from authors such as Rumi, Saadi, Nizami and Qingzhao. And just when you might be thinking the quoting is getting a little sappy, we have Timur to snap us back to reality:
Fired by love, he called her his life, his pearl, his dew-petaled flower.
“This is the sappiest piece of rotting carrion I have ever heard,” Timur interjects.
And we must talk about Timur because he might be my favourite character in the whole book. At first, I hated him, but over time the author develops him into a really funny source of cynicism. I just adore that kind of grumpy but lovable character. He really is a cantankerous old goat, but it is so refreshing in an otherwise pretty dramatic and serious story. Also, my new favourite phrase is: “Go suck your used tea leaves!”
If anything, I think the book would have benefited from more female characters and positive female relationships but I guess, sadly, women at this time mostly existed behind the scenes so the depiction is probably fairly accurate. I still liked how the author gave a minor female character in the opera her own voice and story here. A very impressive multilayered book.
Some extra notes:
➽ This is a standalone.
➽ You do not need to know the opera Turandot to enjoy the book.