Hero Born – Jin Yong

My childhood was full of slightly odd, and very Westernised, views of China. Hong Kong Phooey was a favourite post school cartoon,  we all sang along with Carl Douglas and occasionally called each other ‘Grasshopper‘. But our first introduction to the reality of Chinese culture came from watching the best tv series ever (imho), Monkey…  In later years I thought I had moved away from (non-edible) things oriental (although I did read and love the book which Monkey was based on) and, like many others, I have been guilty of reducing a great and ancient civilization to a cuisine and a visit to see the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum so I decided to try to correct this somewhat by reading Hero Born, the first volume in an epic series which has been described as a Chinese version of The Lord of the Rings…As I read it though I was reminded of how much the culture of the Far East we are familiar with now.

hero bornThe story, we are told in the introduction, follows two Chinese Patriots who are part of the fight by those faithful to the Song Empire against the Jurchen invaders. These young men, however, die very early in this volume and we move to the fates of their as yet unborn children. This volume – the first of three – concentrates on Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, who finds himself raised on the Mongolian steppes in the camp of the great Genghis Khan. He is trained in martial arts by a group known as the Seven Heroes of the South (although there are actually only six for most of the story), and aided in secret by a mysterious Taoist. Although he doesn’t know it a battle was arranged for him and Yang Kang, son of the other Song patriot, to take place when they are eighteen and his teachers (or shifus) have been planning this training since before his birth. It is, in many ways, a simple story of a boy who is trained to fulfill his destiny but it is also wonderfully complex. The historical and political situation in 1200AD China is covered in great detail – this is also a very well researched historical novel – and interwoven with a sort of fantasy tale of chivalry and revenge. It also includes a lot of complicated fight scenes, some romance and political intrigue.

I enjoyed this book but think that calling it a Chinese Lord of the Rings is a bit simplistic. Think of it more as a cross between that, the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a fairly hefty dose of Kung Fu Panda. But without the panda. The pace of the book might seem a little odd – a mix of philosophy and choreographed fights – but this is actually the point where it reminds me of the favourite of my youth, Monkey. Jin Yong is a hugely popular author in China and has been honoured around the world: although national tastes differ I am willing to give a writer who has sold over 300 million books worldwide a try. You could too – you may well love it too…




After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…