Monday, 20 July 2015

Book Review: The Hidden Blade by Sherry Thomas (Heart of Blade Duology, #1)



In the waning days of the last dynasty, in a quiet, beautiful corner of imperial Peking, a young girl's blissful ignorance is shattered when she learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of an English adventurer and a Chinese courtesan. What future is there for such a girl? But a mysterious figure steps forward and offers to instruct her in the highest forms of martial arts--a path to a life of strength and independence.

Half a world away in England, a young boy's idyllic summer on the Sussex downs implodes with the firing of a single bullet. Torn from his family, he becomes the hostage of a urbanely sadistic uncle. He dreams of escaping to find his beloved friend--but the friend is in China, ten thousand miles away.

The girl trains to be deadly. The boy flees across continents. They do not know it yet, but their lives are already inextricably bound together, and will collide one fateful night when they least expect it.

'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' meets 'Downton Abbey,' this remarkable tale of friendship, danger, and coming of age will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.



I was recommended this book having read the author's Luckiest Lady in London (review to come at some point!) but also because the one recommending it to me knew I had a background in martial arts, to put it mildly.

Sherry Thomas has a writing style that I can only believe creates a sense of sheer wonder for readers, but partial envy for other authors who read her works. Truly, this is an author who can craft a story with such style and panache, that sometimes you have to take a step back from what one has read,

Although not a long book, I read and consumed The Hidden Blade over several days, and I'll admit the martial arts aspect of the tale was a huge draw for me. As part one of a duology, The Hidden Blade works wonderfully as a historical piece that is lighter on romance than one might expect from Miss Thomas. I do expect part two - My Beautiful Enemy to fulfil the wishes of any reader who wanted more romance in this book.

That is not to say the book lacks romance, far from it. Telling the story of young Chinese girl Ying-Ying who is taken under the considerable wing of her teacher Amah, there is a dual story running with a pace-perfect and a seamless narrative, as the story of upper class English gent Leighton goes through many jumps and hoops (not all of them pleasant).

For me, whilst the story of Ying-Ying and Leighton is engaging (but in the best tradition of tales like Brief Encounter, where there is an attraction but barely exploited....and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon..with Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai definitely attracted to each other but restrained by age old customs and beliefs) - the romance is hinted at here, but I expect it will be more craftily developed in the follow-up.

What makes The Hidden Blade an exceptional book....well, where to start. Ying-Ying is cool, and whilst I can understand the nod to wuxia films like CTHD, it is but one of many that were made in China, it just so happens that particular film was made with a Western audience in mind. The martial arts scenes are brilliantly depicted - I especially loved a scene between Ying-Ying and her master where her Chi (Qi) was being developed. 

Contrary to popular Western belief, it's really hard - nigh on impossible in fact, to find a martial arts master of repute in China. It took me seven years to find my current one. But for reasons that the story must move forward, Ying-Ying is introduced to her teacher early on in the story.

As Leighton makes his improbable but necessary journey to the East - no doubt to reckon with his destiny, I am wanting to know how the worlds of a Chinese girl and Western man will collide.

He seems bit down on his luck, unable to catch a break for large parts of the tale. You'll root for him, as I did. But you will also want Ying-Ying to outgrow her master one day, and in this regard, Amah teaches her student (brutally) well. It seems a mis-match to me, which makes it all the more intriguing.

I rarely have such high praise for a book, but it is so well done, if I could give it six stars, I would. Let''s see how the series wraps up with the intriguing title of My Beautiful Enemy.

Rating: Five Jade-coloured stars.