A Hero Born by Jin Yong

details
Title: A Hero Born.
Series: Legends of the Condor Heroes #1.
Writer(s): Jin Yong.
Translator: Anna Holmwood.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press.
Format: Advance Readers’ Copy.
Release Date: September 2019 (first published January 1st, 1957).
Pages: 416.
Genre(s): Fantasy.
ISBN13:  9781250252906.
My Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆.

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Who wouldn’t love to live a life brimming with perseverance, dedication, and motivation towards self-fulfillment in the realm of martial arts? To become one with yourself, to understand the basic guidelines to a life of respect and honour? To learn insane moves allowing you defy the laws of nature and physics as you glide into your enemy and extinguish the little hope they had in bringing evil into this world? There once was an era where people lived and breathed martial arts. But war was also on the horizon. Translated for the first time by Anna Holmwood for the English-reading community to indulge a classic Chinese epic fantasy series, A Hero Born sends the reader to the Song Empire (China 1200 AD) as the great Genghis Khan rises his army.

What is A Hero Born about? Set in a generation where loyalty, courage, and kindness distinguished the good from the bad, two Song patriots suffer a terrible tragedy that brings in a young Guo Jing and his mother into a fate intertwined with that of Ghengis Khan. Driven by revenge since birth, Guo Jing learns from his shifus, The Seven Freaks of the South, the quintessential knowledge for life in martial arts as his destiny spirals in the ebb and flow of historical events that lead him to a battle with a soul-matched rival with a connection to him too rooted to his past to ignore. The first book of four sets the table to an epic saga filled with heart, war, and tragedy.

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There’s no denying that the writing style suffers from the translation but the tale’s core essence remains relatively intact as Jin Yong’s novel captures the oriental folklore qualities of martial arts stories in A Hero Born. Unlike traditional epics, the first installment takes a different approach to introduce the world to the reader by encapsulating multiple generations within the narrative. The story doesn’t necessarily focus on Guo Jing growth amidst the rise and fall of empires but utilizes different point of views to paint a picture that allows the reader to situate themselves in a timeline filled with brotherhood, love, and war.

The unpolished writing style thus strikes you in the stomach and almost overwhelms you as you try to pick out the underlying vertu of various heroes. The story ends up being read like a legend depicted with raw heroism, passion, and comedy. In fact, it is difficult to not sense the latter’s omnipresence throughout the narrative with various subarcs tinged in slapstick-like sequences. It doesn’t help when fighting scenes are also filled with lethal moves with funny names à la “Monkey’s Fist of Heavenly Wrath”. While often difficult to visually grasp these sequences, one can only imagine the epicness of it all had it been executed through a different medium.

While the execution is flawed and might not necessarily be due to the author but the translation, it is possible to enjoy the story once that limitation is overlooked. By embracing the book’s historical and cultural context, the various themes of friendship, love, determination, and whatnot make for an endearing read. Despite characters that aren’t prone to be relatable or meticulously developed, there is a certain engrossing element to their journey through adversity and tragedy that makes their story somewhat gratifying.

A Hero Born is a coming of age story centered around a child’s self-discovery as a martial arts hero destined for greatness.


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Thank you to Raincoast Books for sending me a copy for review!

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Various movies and TV series adaptations in the Chinese entertainment business have been made since 1958.

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34 comments

  • Hmm… I’ve been curious about this one and actually have an ARC of the second book. But I’ve been hesitant to try it. I think the writing might turn me off.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Looks like this is not for me after all, and not just because of “Monkey’s Fist of Heavenly Wrath”… Bad translation can kill the best of books, but this one looks to have some more problems than just translation. Cool review, Lashaan, I enjoyed the way you tenderly criticized it 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m totally with you there. I think Dostoyevski’s books are the only ones that worked well for me so far. Maybe Chinese to English is just too hard to get right… At least, so far, it has been the case for me… Thanks for the kind words, Ola! I appreciate it a lot. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • I really enjoyed this first book in the series and look forward to trying more. I absolutely saw some of the issues you point out, but thankfully there was enough there that resonated with me to keep my interest. Perhaps having grown up loving wuxia movies helped with some of it. It felt like a book perhaps originally written for a younger audience. And it’s always difficult not knowing if issues we find were in the original work or the result of difficulties in translation. This translation has not just langauge to deal with but the long history and cultural differences between current and original audiences. I do wonder about the interesting names of various moves, but that seems to also be the case in all the wuxia movies. I see those as difficult to translate as I don’t know that we have anything in our history or culture to call them that would in any way reflect whatever the original meaning was. But, this is also perhaps the first book of this sort I’ve read, so I don’t have much to compare it to other than the old movies of similar subjects.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yep. I remember when you mentioned how much you enjoyed it and how it made you nostalgic about those wuxia movies. In fact, while reading it, I also thought of those movies I used to enjoy, and still do! I could see through the issues all the lovely cultural elements of the narrative that make these stories so epic in their own way. While I wouldn’t call it the Chinese LotR or GoT, it is in a league of its own. I would definitely love to try the next book and see if the story’s direction can make things even better. I heard it also has a different translator. Who knows? Maybe it really goes a step in the right direction. 😀

      Like

      • I completely agree, calling it a Chinese LotR is very misleading. It doesn’t feel even remotely like that. I’ve not read or watched GoT yet, but would likely agree on that, too. I’ve very rarely found those sorts of comparisons useful, and yet we still seem to get caught up in them, or at least the publishing industry does. 🙂 Here’s hoping the next book is better than the first.

        Liked by 1 person

  • I was anticipating your opinion on this book when I saw it was on your to-read list for this month. I checked out the first few pages recently, and I agree, the story suffers noticeably from the translation, and it put me off. I’m no expert, but I feel like a more emotional or floral writing might have made the book more engaging while capturing the oriental beauty of historical China. Maybe this should push me to go improve my Mandarin, haha, so I can read the original text 😀

    Great review, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you there. Haruki Murakami’s books does it right (Japanese to English). And for a fantasy story, I think it’s even more important for it to have something closer to a flowery/purple prose… I still need to find a good Chinese-English translation though. So far, they always end up disappointing in one way or another. 😦 Thank you so much for reading!!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve never read Murakami’s works, mostly cuz I think it’s not my type of book, but I’m glad not all is lost when it comes to translated books. That means it’s possible, they just need to find the right translator! How about The Three-Body Problem? Have you read that? If so, was it translated well? It’s a chinese hard sci-fi novel by Liu Cixin and very popular in China. It got some Hugo award, too, I believe.

        Liked by 1 person

  • It’s just a guess, but maybe names like ‘monkey’s fist of heavenly wrath’ jarrs the reader from the story because, aside from the obvious clunky sound, monkeys in western culture are viewed in a more comical way? In China, they see it as mischievous and cunning, although that’s not to say they don’t use it for comical relief. And I think in Chinese this term would’ve had 4 syllables, whereas the translation has 8! Quite a mouthful xD No wonder the movies do better

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right, there. It’s why I still had fun though because I was used to the more “campy” style of martial arts movies back in the day and I could totally see it in this one here and then. But wow, that’s a very insightful point you bring! Thanks for sharing it with me. I knew there would be so much complications in this translation and that just illustrates it perfectly. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hehe, thanks! I feel like both cultures views on monkeys share some common ground, just that the Chinese seem to respect them more(like the Monkey King ‘Wu Kong’. It’s a beloved classic here).

        Liked by 1 person

  • Ha damn Lashaan!! I so loved that cover spotted on your IG feed and wanted that one to be good! That’s also why I began reading in English: the translation often left me wanting!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Haaa the importance of a good translation… 😄 Especially with languages and cultures so different like English an Chinese! Apart from that, I have never read a Chinese fantasy book and now I really want to! 😊 Thanks for sharing Lashaan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think, of all people out there, you probably understand this the most hahahaha I hear it’s already super complicated to translate Chinese to English too… Then again, Chinese fantasy stories could be sooooo beautiful and epic when you think about it! Thanks for reading, Juliette! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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