Review by C.J. Bunce
As the paperback edition of Anna Holmwood’s English translation of A Hero Born–book one of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels–arrives in bookstores tomorrow, the first English translation of Volume 2 is coming late this month. In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, Jin Yong’s epic adventure continues in A Bond Undone. A sequel as exciting a follow-up as The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather II, Jin Yong takes his epic, legendary wuxia heroes into a riveting, unputdownable volume of honor, loyalty, bravery, cunning, and devotion. And English audiences get to experience it for the first time this month thanks to a compelling, tightly written translation by Gigi Chang. The 1950s series has sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the books are finally being made available to U.S. and UK readers.
Two young men whose destinies were determined before they were born, Guo Jing and Yang Kang, were made sworn brothers by their fathers, and their lives came crashing together 18 years later in A Hero Born (awarded our Best Read of 2019, reviewed here at borg), as the truth of their shared past finally caught up with them. By the end of the first book they had each developed relationships with powerful women, Lotus Huang with Jing, Mercy Mu with Kang, all four among the most promising martial artists of the early 13th century of this work of historical fantasy. The story takes on tones of a Shakespearean tragedy, as Mu and Kang’s relationship is one of confusion and despair, as they are driven together and then apart by Kang’s fear at parting ways with a life of privilege, the only life he has ever known. Jing, the saga’s hero, is constantly mocked for his ignorance, but the quick wit and love of Lotus, and his pursuit of her hand, allows him to come under the teachings of the greatest of China’s masters.
Adding to their former teachers or shifus, in A Bond Undone Jing and Lotus learn secret kung fu from a new shifu, Count Seven Hong, Chief of the Beggar Clan, a comical sort who will do anything for great food. As Jing stumbles into getting himself engaged to more than one woman (one by order of Genghis Khan, one by his former shifus and a mentor), Lotus is pursued by Gallant Ouyang, a handsome but conniving member of a tribe who has amassed an unwilling army of women warriors, all at his beck and call, as well as a more powerful kung fu. Jing has his own enemies, not the least of which is the deadly Cyclone Mei, who possesses one of two volumes of the Nine Yin Manual, a book of secret, ultimate martial arts, the understanding of which could make someone the greatest master of them all. The book is both the Holy Grail and One Ring of the series. But Mei was also the student of Lotus’s father, the Heretic Apothecary Huang, as was her husband Hurricane Chen, inadvertently killed by the reflexes of a six-year-old Jing, told in the first volume of the series. Apothecary Huang is repulsed at the thought of his daughter betrothed to the killer of one of his students, which sets up the key action of the story.
After a failed first introduction to her father, Lotus Huang takes Guo Jing to the dangerous Peach Blossom Island where he lives, to beg for his consent to marriage. But there they become separated, and in the weeks of waiting for Lotus to emerge from her father’s home, he is befriended by an elder warrior named Zhou Botong of the Quanzhen Sect, a master in his own right who was imprisoned by Lotus’s father long ago. As they become unlikely sworn brothers, Botong begins to expand Jing’s kung fu in ways he himself never could have imagined. And more sorrow lies ahead, as Jing learns Lotus’s father has made another deal for Lotus’s hand, pitching Jing into three trials to try to win her back.
As I said with A Hero Born, A Bond Undone is why we have words like “epic.” The lyrical prose of Gigi Chang’s translation even surpasses the style and effectiveness of the first volume. This is highly complex storytelling made understandable without taking anything away, including the seamless melding of meanings of the hundreds of Chinese terms that may have no direct translation. The social, literary, artistic, and political details of China, the Mongols, and Jin, the Taoist philosophy, and visual kung fu choreography are as good as classic adventure stories get. Without the need for the introductory elements of book one, Jin Yong really hits the ground running in this story, grabbing readers and never letting go.
Until his death in 2018, Jin Wong was the world’s most-read living writer. All those components that made his first book in the series great were present in the second book, like the relationships between philosophy, mind, and body, and incredible kung fu movements, and the mythic archetypes, deep character study, and relationships between people in conflict are what makes this second book hard to put down. As with the first volume, the cast of characters at the front of the book is a good resource as is the appendices of explanatory material. And look for more traditional illustrations by Jiang Yun Xing.
Consider A Bond Undone a must-read. It’s available now in the UK, and it’s coming to the U.S. from St. Martin’s Griffin on March 24, and you can pre-order it in trade paperback now here at Amazon. Look for a review of the next volume, A Snake Lies Waiting, coming soon. And don’t forget to check out my review here at borg of the 2017 television adaptation of the Legends of the Condor Heroes story, a great companion to the novels.