The Bird and the Blade: Review
Ladies and gentlemen, I have read a few retellings in my day. Retellings of fairy tales, mythology, folk tales- you name it. But guys. The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen is a standalone novel and retelling of Turandot, the famous opera by Puccini. An OPERA! Okay, yes, the original opera and story is extremely problematic as it initially puts a Mongolian princess in a position of power and independence, only to have her wither away into a lovesick woman. But! Bannen rectifies this story by introducing a brand new perspective in the form of our narrator and building a lush world where the reader is transported back to the Yuan Dynasty. Read on for my review!
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom … until she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father as they flee from their enemies across the vast Mongol Empire. On the run, with adversaries on all sides and an endless journey ahead, Jinghua hatches a scheme to use the Kipchaks’ exile to return home, a plan that becomes increasingly fraught as her feelings for Khalaf evolve into a hopeless love.
Jinghua’s already dicey prospects take a downward turn when Khalaf seeks to restore his kingdom by forging a marriage alliance with Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. As beautiful as she is cunning, Turandokht requires all potential suitors to solve three impossible riddles to win her hand—and if they fail, they die.
Jinghua has kept her own counsel well, but with Khalaf’s kingdom—and his very life—on the line, she must reconcile the hard truth of her past with her love for a boy who has no idea what she’s capable of ... even if it means losing him to the girl who’d sooner take his life than his heart.
First, let's start with the good. The authenticity of the world that Bannen takes us into is lush and vibrant and its clear that there was plenty of research done into the Mongol Empire and China's Yuan Dynasty. As someone who majored in East Asian Studies, I can really appreciate the time that Bannen took to take us deep into this tenuous period in Chinese and Central Asian history, with a mythical and folkloric aspect to her storytelling.
Unfortunately, there's little else that I really inspired me about the book. It's told in seven parts with an alternating timeline. We open up with a prologue that takes place several years ago and introduces us to our narrator, Jinghua's, current situation and her first encounter with Prince Khalaf. The first chapter takes place in the present-day, where Khalaf prepares to take Turandokht's challenge. Then, we are thrown into a flashback and begin to understand that this is the journey of how Khalaf arrived to take Turandokht's challenge and what has transpired between him and the narrator, Jinghua.
The organization of the book could have been very interesting and gripping, but the pacing was all off. The parts in present-day and the past were both told in present-tense. This could have been a great opportunity to do something interesting, perhaps give a dreamlike quality to the flashback parts of the book that would make the tension in the present that much more stark. Instead, we were thrown into a situation where a lovesick Jinghua is looking for Prince Khalaf, and torn against her loyalty to him and her love for him. Where did this come from?! We were forced into an insta-love situation without any of the slow burn or smolder.
In retrospect, this is perhaps something that Bannen felt she needed to do to provide a twist to the retelling, a vehicle to give Prince Khalaf added dimension. In doing so, however, she turned Jinghua into an accessory. Our narrator was a pretty two-dimensional character. Oh sure, she has a mysterious past and is haunted by her brother's ghost- who is she really?! Maybe she's a little sassy with Timur, the former leader of the Kipchak Khanate. But these moments didn't feel natural as part of her character development. They felt forced. "How do I give Jinghua some more character? Here, she can snap back at the grumpy deposed king." It's difficult to reconcile the extremely sassy side of Jinghua with her meek shyness around Khalaf. When I'm not feeling the narrator, it just throws off my whole groove and unfortunately I was never able to truly get immersed in The Bird and the Blade because of this. It's a shame that Jinghua fell short because Khalaf was a true sweetheart that I fell head over heels for, and even the icy cold Princess Turandokht had a fierceness to her that I was compelled by.
The conclusion was absolutely tragic, fitting for this retelling of Turandot, and did make up for some of the lackluster character development. Dare I say that I almost shed a tear?