2023’s The Heavenly Sword is the first novel in Alice Poon’s Sword Maiden from the Moon historical fantasy series.
China has been liberated from the cruel Mongols, who have been replaced by the Ming dynasty. While it’s true that the government is still cruel, capricious, and dangerous to the Chinese person in the street, at least the Ming are Han Chinese.
Tang Sai’er’s native Shandong province suffered greatly during the overthrow of the Yuan. Extreme prudence with regard to the current dynasty is the key to long life. Alas for Sai’er, she is fated to play a role that is significant but in no way safe.
Unlike many Chinese women and girls at this time, Sai’er has been trained in Wudang martial arts. Her prowess is remarkable. Nevertheless, she chafes at the restrictions placed on women at this time and place. Why should boys have all the thrilling tasks? Destiny is on her side, for Sai’er is the earthly manifestation of the moon goddess Chang’e.
Zhu Di, fourth son of the Ming Hongwu emperor, is also a divinity incarnate. Although he is technically not in line for the throne, it is virtually certain that Zhu Di will not allow petty legalities to interfere with his righteous ambition. Given his character, it is also certain that he will be an evil ruler, unless other factors intervene.
Sai’er’s divinely appointed task is to be those other factors. She cannot prevent Zhu Di from becoming the Yongle (“perpetual happiness”) emperor. She might be able to curtail his worst excesses. She certainly has the potential to be a legendary hero … but her body is as mortal as anyone else’s. Surviving the thrilling adventures to come is in no way ensured. If she is not run through in a duel, she might well be quietly poisoned, or worst of all, abducted by an unsuitable groom.
The author does not sugar-coat the brutality of the Ming legal system at this time.
It’s interesting (to me, anyway) that just as the emperor is a giant pain in the ass for the common folk, so too can many undesirable social complications be traced back to the gods making decisions best described as “unfortunate.” This does not appear to be a matter of divine plans being beyond mortal ken, more a matter of poor life choices being a phenomenon that goes all the way up to the top.
For those of you who don’t want to do the reading, the Yongle emperor1 ruled from 7 July 1402 to 12 August 1424. He’s not one of those villains destined to fall from a height into a convenient pool of lava at the end of the first volume. However Sai’er mitigates his excesses, it’s not going to be by removing him from the throne or at least not any time soon.
I have two main issues with the novel.
The first is the enormous cliffhanger ending. The end is very abrupt; it’s not so much an end as an interruption. It may be the best way to read this book is by waiting to purchase this book and its sequel (publication date unclear; perhaps disappointing sales of the first volume may doom the sequel). If you want to encourage the author, you may want to buy the first volume knowing full well that you are doomed to lectio interrumpitur.
The second issue is what Le Guin might have called the Poughkeepsie problem, which is that this is a novel set in a fantasy version of historical China in which people toss around words like “clone.” This may not be a valid criticism inasmuch as true verisimilitude would have the characters speaking Sinitic languages rather than the convenient-for-me English, but the modern vernacular kept dragging me out of the story.
On the other hand, Poon strives to live up to the standards of her literary model Jin Yong, whom I’m sure you’ve all read. Sai’er needs all the martial arts prowess she has to survive the numerous confrontations she will have. She also needs her cunning to elude the myriad of traps, and friends and family to rescue her on those occasions when her martial arts and keen wit are not quite sufficient. The plot moves along very nicely.
The Heavenly Sword is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). If Apple Books carries The Heavenly Sword, their garbage interface successfully concealed it from me.
1: Yes, Zheng He’s emperor. Zheng He is a major supporting character in the novel, under the name Ma Sanbao.