Monday, November 30, 2020

Nerds on Tour: A Snake Lies Waiting by Jin Yong, tr. Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang (1959/2020 novel)

Dossier: A Snake Lies Waiting by Jin Yong

Location: China

Package Type: 1/4 of a serialised novel

Itinerary: A Snake Lies Waiting is the third volume of Legends of the Condor Heroes, a wuxia fantasy published by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) in 1959. Originally serialised, Legends of the Condor Heroes is being released as four books in its first official English translation; for those in it for the long haul (which I guess includes me!), Legends of the Condor Heroes is itself first in the trilogy, and there's a projected eight volumes after this to bring all three books to English-speaking audiences. 

This being part of a larger whole, A Snake Lies Waiting begins very much in the middle of the action set up in the first two books. Set during the period of war between the Song (Han Chinese) dynasty and the Jin (Jurchen) dynasty in the 12th century, we follow the adventures of Guo Jing, son of Song Patriot Skyfury Guo, raised in exile in Mongolia, now out in the world aiming to thwart the Jin and to become a martial arts master. This quest is occasionally hampered by the fact that Guo Jing is not the brightest bulb in the drawer, but he's good hearted and steady and prone to stumbling upon and accidentally mastering extremely powerful martial arts techniques, even memorising the legendary Nine Yin Manual which many of his enemies are seeking to get their hands on. He's also helped at every turn by his beloved Lotus Huang, a woman he would very like to marry if he didn't keep accidentally getting himself betrothed to half the other women he meets instead. Also in the mix is Yang Kang, Guo Jing's sworn brother and son of Skyfury Guo's best friend Ironheart Yang, who has been raised as the son of the Prince of the Jin Empire: the enemies of the Song state. Yang is a complex, often antagonistic force in Guo's plans (he's also, frankly, a bit of a dick) but he also has his father's legacy to live up to and his journey, where it intersects with Guo's, is just as intriguing to watch.

As it's sandwiched in the middle of the overall plot, Snake Lies Waiting is mostly focused on a few episodic diversions for Guo Jing and Lotus: there's an adventure out to sea in a leaky boat followed by the classic "trapped on an island with dangerous enemies who can kill us in our sleep, but if we cooperated maybe we would not be on the island", then a long kung fu healing sequence in a remote inn that suddenly becomes a hub for every character the two have met over the course of the last two books, followed by an adventure with the Beggar Clan and Yang Kang that pitches them right into another kung fu sect's internal politics. By the end, though, we're in position for the closing segment of this first novel, and for Guo Jing's first reckoning with the Jin.

Travel Log: A Snake Lies Waiting is a 400 page book that's also just a small part of a much larger serialised whole, and as such its an experience that's significantly different to reading the average novel. It opens in the middle of its action, goes through a number of scenes which are entertaining but not particularly tension building, and then ends just as things might have started to get meatier. That said, if you've made it to this volume, you've already been through plenty of slow, episodic narrative and know exactly what to expect from this series, so that's probably not going to be an issue (especially if you're reading this in a few month's time, when you can go straight on to reading the fourth volume and closing out this first part of the trilogy). What this does mean is that I have to be in the right headspace to read the series, with its soap-opera esque character development and protracted martial arts fights. That its such a specific type of text makes the translation job even more important, and Holmwood and Chang have done an excellent job in producing a highly accessible, if slightly dry, style that's easy to get invested into. I always psych myself up for these books, but once I'm in the middle of them I never feel they are challenging to read or get back to, despite not hitting the tension structure my brain expects from something it still thinks of as a single novel.

The highlight of this series is, of course, the wuxia. Although I haven't experienced much of it, either through movies or other books, I was really intrigued by how familiar the style feels: characters move in various evocative, physics-breaking methods and counter each other with strengths developed from different forms of martial art. Although the narration isn't focused on the physicality so much as the names and provenance of different moves, the result is still something that was cinematic and evocative for me even when it's fully within the realms of fantasy. The names and styles of kung fu also back up the characterisation of supporting characters, most of whom are associated with particular forms or weapons: Viper Ouyang, for example, is renowned for his use of poison, while Beggar Clan leader Count Seven Hong tends towards swift, unexpected techniques that take advantage of opponents underestimating him. By this point of the series, we have already met the characters and their masteries and match-ups often require characters to assess how squaring off against each other now will be different to their previous fights - there's also the occasional free-for-all in which multiple characters with different agendas end up unintentionally helping or hindering each other, in what are often highly slapstick scenes.

As a 1950s novel, I was expecting a certain level of unexamined patriarchy to be embedded in Jin Yong's story, and while it's not as pronounced as I feared, it's very much a factor here. There's a definite imbalance towards male characters, especially among the senior generation of kung fu practitioners, and the author makes it clear that while the women who do make it onto the page (especially Lotus) are talented and impressive, he doesn't consider them inherently capable of reaching the same heights of mastery as the men. Lotus is wonderful, but she's stuck playing second fiddle to a man who is significantly less capable than her most of the time, and she doesn't really get to meet and spend time with the novel's few other women beyond sizing them up as rivals for Guo's hand, reinforcing the sense that this is an overwhelmingly male story, and one whose female characters are seen through a lens of marriagability much of the time. Because my expectations were low, I've found the gender imbalance doesn't strongly affect my enjoyment of the series, but it is something I have to actively give a pass in order to enjoy the story and other readers would be well within their rights to not do so.

Despite that, A Snake Lies Waiting is part of a series that's well worth picking up if you're at all interested in wuxia or classic fantasy literature - an epic story that owns its operatic absurdity, and something quite different to the vast majority of books that I read.


The Adventure: 3.5
The Scenery: 4/5.
NerdTrip Rating: 7.5/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy