The Bird and the Blade
Megan Bannen’s début novel The Bird and the Blade is a surprising mix of fantasy and historical fiction that takes place in a fantastical version of 13th century Mongolia. It also happens to be a retelling of Puccini’s opera Turandot. Fortunately, you don’t have to be familiar with that in order to enjoy this book, something for which I am very grateful, since I’d never even heard of the opera before I began reading the novel.
If you’re looking for an historically accurate depiction of Mongolia in the 1200s, you’re not going to find it here. Ms. Bannen takes quite a few liberties, but she acknowledges them all in an author’s note at the end of the novel so readers will know which elements are based on historical data and which are part of her imagination. Of course, some aspects are clearly fantasy, but others are a little less obvious, so I appreciated her transparency.
Jinghua is a Chinese slave girl owned by Prince Khalaf and his father. She’s desperate to return home, but she’s pretty sure such a thing is impossible, so she does her best to settle into her life as a slave. But when Khalaf flees his adversaries, taking Jinghua with him, she begins to think she might have a chance to see her homeland again after all.
Life on the run doesn’t turn out to be easy for a king, a prince, and a slave who has neither the desire or the natural skill to learn anything about fighting. There are quite a few people intent on seeing Khalaf dead, so the three are in almost constant peril. I would have liked to see Jinghua take more of an active role in keeping herself safe rather than always allowing others to be responsible for her well-being, but that’s not the way the author chooses to spin things.
When it becomes obvious to Khalaf that he has absolutely no hope of restoring his kingdom on his own, he hatches a plan to marry the powerful and beautiful Turandot, the daughter of the Great Khan. Of course, Turandot isn’t willing to give her hand in marriage to just anyone who asks, so she devises a quest of sorts to test the mettle of her various suitors. In order to claim Turandot as his bride, Khalaf must solve three impossible-seeming riddles. If he succeeds, he can marry Turandot and go about the business of ruling his kingdom, but if he is unable to solve the riddles, he’ll be put to death.
Jinghua is not a fan of Khalaf’s plan or the task Turandot has set him. She has started to have feelings for the prince, and she hates the thought of him married to the ruthless Turandot. She doesn’t necessarily see a way for him to marry her instead, but it’s something she’s begun to ponder as they make their way across the empire.
The Bird and the Blade is a fast-paced, well-constructed novel with characters who don’t fall into any of the usual categories today’s young adult fantasy novels have set forth. Jinghua is not the smartest, or the most beautiful, or the most courageous girl around. The fate of the empire does not rest in her hands, and that’s fine with her; she wants only to return home. If she can manage to steal a few kisses from Khalaf along the way, that would be fine with her, but that’s about the limit of her ambitions.
For his part, Khalaf isn’t the kind of hero I’ve come to expect in novels of this type. He’s actually pretty cowardly at times, and I found myself cringing at his apparent laziness. Heroic feats are pretty much beyond him, and I found myself wondering how he would ever manage to solve Turandot’s riddles and save his kingdom.
Some readers might consider Turandot the villain of the story, but she doesn’t come across that way at all. She’s a complex character who is willing to do what is necessary to ensure her own happiness and well-being. This definitely wasn’t common in the 13th century, and I’m not sure she could have pulled it off all that well in real life, but it works well in the world Ms. Bannen has created. She’s not necessarily a likable character, but in a weird way, I appreciated her all the more for her unwillingness to bow to social conventions.
There are a few places in the middle of the novel that drag on longer than they need to; the prose is lovely, but I sometimes felt the author used too many words to get her point across. I’m a fan of descriptive language, but there is a little too much of it here at times, and there were a few occasions when I felt I was drowning in unnecessary words.
Having said all this, I’m still quite happy to recommend The Bird and the Blade to fans of young adult fantasy who are looking for something fresh and different. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s one I enjoyed in spite of its flaws, and I’m hopeful others will appreciate its strengths the way I did.