I have always been interested in Wuxia (pronounced sort of like woo-seeyah), but I shamefully have never read a Wuxia novel. As usual for a review of a book that was written outside my culture, I have a few disclaimers: I do not speak Chinese and I have never been to China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. So there are undoubtedly certain cultural signals and historical references that I may have missed, but I still can comment on the novel as a work of art.
Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain was written in 1959 by Jin Yong, which is the pen name of journalist and novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung. For those of you unfamiliar with Wuxia and without going out of my depth, it is basically Chinese martial fantasy. The genre focuses on heroes that practice martial arts, follow Chinese ideals of chivalry, and travel around righting wrongs and fighting the good fight. It is Chinese high fantasy, with superhuman powers, idealistic characters, and amazing locations.
This story is a classic adventure tale, focusing on a group of martial practitioners, some more memorable than others, who find themselves in a mountain manor owned by a mysterious lord at the top of Jade Brush Peak in Northeast China during the Qing Dynasty. As you might expect, there is a lot of fighting in this book and it is awesome. People are floating on snow, blocking blades with their bare hands, healing wounds, and paralyzing people with a mere touch of a finger. There is pretty much nothing these people cannot do. Fox Volant, our hero, can pretty much kill people just by flicking gems at them with his fingers.
What should not be lost in all of this kung fu goodness, however, is that between epic fights, there is a pretty compelling story. It’s a treasure hunt rolled up in a mystery rolled into a kung fu movie. To tell this story, Cha picked an interesting device. Almost all of the main plot points are told via flashback through anecdotes told by the characters. A few events are repeated several times because characters disagree on how events actually played out. It works well and the way the stories are told helps flesh out the characters.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was also the most familiar. I enjoyed watching Chinese chivalry spring to the life on the page. It was very comfortable and familiar seeing the characters attempt to reach the ideals of loyalty, bravery, piety, and duty. Still, there were some cultural differences that should be noted. Where in the West, a chivalrous knight might be hailed for disobeying an order he finds unjust, a Chinese Knight-Errant always keeps his word and knows his duty. There is obvious merit to both tropes here and reading the more unfamiliar one was refreshing.
Dragonball Syndrome and a Cast of Dozens
Something that took a bit of getting used to was the habit of the narration to name every move by a, to be diplomatic, colorful label. Here are a few examples of some of the moves in this novel: Thousand-catty Counterpoise, Spring Cocoon Pugilistic Feat, and my personal favorite Empery Dragon Spinning Round to Sprout Whiskers. These are great names. When you watch something like Dragonball, characters constantly yelling their moves before they do them seems somewhat cheesy and I think hurts casual Westerners view of the genre. In this book, however, it gave the fights a cerebral element. This was not fighters yelling moves at each other, this was a mental and physical chess match using tried and true techniques. I found this particular trope of wuxia and its brethren to be fun and effective.
The book, however, was not perfect. First it was published as a serial, like a Dickens book, so you get a lot of sections ending with cliffhangers, most of them minor, but definitely written in such a way to have readers hooked until the next installment. This was not a flaw in the book itself, but it is not really my style.
Being a chivalrous fantasy novel, the story and eventual outcome is pretty predictable, except for the ending, which I will not spoil here (you will either love it or hate it). Good characters act good. Bad characters act dastardly. One of the weaknesses of idealized fantasy is that the characters can come across a bit shallow and two-dimensional. Veteran genre readers should be able to move past it, but those looking for a complex character piece should probably lower their expectations.
Last, and most importantly, there were a lot of characters. I mean a lot. So many characters that there is a list of them at the beginning of the book. There are 34 characters listed as “Main Characters.” Now, not all of them are truly main, but holy crap that is a lot of characters. Not only were there lots of people, everyone belonged to some organization or other. Was this guy from the Peking Overland Convoy or the House Spring Banditry? Was this the girl from the Dragon Lodge? This got so confusing that I started to have to write them down. Eventually, I had drawn a relationship diagram that I kept next to the book while I read. Bottom line, it was difficult to keep track of everybody. I like a full cast of characters, but sheesh.
Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of this book and ended up chastising myself for not getting around to a dedicated Wuxia phase of my life sooner. This is surely only the first of a long line of this type of novel for me. It has its flaws, but if you are a fan of fantasy, this book should deliver.
8/10 Gilt-faced Buddhas