Review by C.J. Bunce
How often do you read a series that makes it to four volumes and each entry gets progressively better? That’s exactly what awaits you in Gigi Chang, Anna Holmwood, and Shelly Bryant’s landmark English translation of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels. This series, originally a serialized novel written and first published by Yong aka Louis Cha between 1957 and 1959, is in fact the worldwide best selling novel of all time, with a billion copies in print. A 38 volume manhua comic was issued in 1998, and countless film and TV adaptations followed, including my favorite in 2017 (reviewed here). In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, the series is among the world’s greatest fantasy novels and you should think of the fourth and final installment, A Heart Divided, as the Return of the King of the series. Only it’s better than Tolkien’s finale–incredible subplots, powerful historical fantasy, dozens of major, important key characters, who, because of the stunning translation and Jin’s literary characterizations, will be easy for Western audiences to keep track of. It doesn’t fall into the trap of many major fantasy series: losing the steam built up in the earlier installments.
A Heart Divided, at last available in U.S. and UK bookstores and here at Amazon, is the first English translation of Volume 4. Another expert translation of Jin’s breathtaking adventure, full of wit and wisdom, romance, and all aspects of humanity, expect to find the most successful wind-up of all the key plot points, and clever unstitching of all the tightly woven story threads in the saga. This is the Shakespearean ending, full of tragedy and triumph, and the bloodiest of the installments–with one key character killed in Volume 3, A Snake Lies Waiting, only a few favorites will remain standing by the end of A Heart Divided. Jin’s smart choices will be certain to surprise readers.
If you missed my previous reviews from the series, know that the series rated among our best books of the past decade here at borg. 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 Guo, Mercy Mu with Yang, all four among the most promising martial artists of their time. The conflicts of the second and third volumes were given greater gravity here, more tones of a Shakespearean tragedy, as Guo and Lotus continue to be driven apart at every turn. Book Four is about stakes, about the growth of its hero, and the wisdom and skills of Lotus, the final determination of the greatest living kung fu master, and the end of Genghis Khan’s empire building.
Guo and Lotus’s teacher or shifu Count Seven Hong, Chief of the Beggar Clan, is back with sworn brother Zhou Botong of the Quanzhen Sect, the two best supporting characters in the series. The driving force of the story continues to be Lotus, one of the most fantastic superheroines ever written, despite Jin’s more overt efforts to reveal a story about a farm boy who lives among China’s greatest heroes, all the while incorporating real texts of the era and historical figures.
Again, all the questions are answered: Will Guo avenge his father’s death and destroy Wanyan Honglie? Will Guo and Lotus be reunited? Will Yang and Merci Mu? Will Lotus’s father accept Guo as son or force the promised marriage to his daughter? Will Guo return to fight in battle alongside Genghis Khan? What is the fate of the Five Greats and the remaining Six Freaks of Jiangnan? Will Guo be able to take his mother back to her Song homeland? Will Genghis Khan conquer the known world? Will Guo or Lotus master the techniques of the Nine Yin Manual? Who is the last villain standing and ultimate kung fu master? Who will win the final battle at Mount Hua? Is there a future for the Condor Heroes?
Readers will encounter the same level of precision in adapting Jin’s lyrical prose in the translations of the first three volumes, more of Jin’s complex storytelling intertwined with the very real culture of the day, including all the social, literary, artistic, and political details of China, the Mongols, Song, and Jin, the Taoist philosophy, along with the visual kung fu action that was an important part of life in this part of Asia in the 12th century.