The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Published: June 2018
Genre: historical fantasy
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom … until the kingdom is conquered by enemy forces and she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father 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.
Jinghua, a Song slave in Kipchak Khanate, mourns the loss of her family and is haunted by their hungry spirits. A part of her would wish nothing more than for the Kipchaks to disappear, but Prince Khalaf was once so kind to her she cannot hate them all. When an unlikely and terrible opportunity arises for her to escape, she chooses to flee the Khanate with Prince Khalaf and his father, seeking assistance from neighboring kingdoms to take back their land and stand up to the Great Khan. But Khalaf does not seek warfare, and instead makes his father and Jinghua chase after him across the great Mongol Empire, in an attempt to stop him from answering the dangerous Turandokht’s riddles and face imminent death. Jinghua must find the balance between honoring her family and past, and protecting her heart.
I thought my familiarity with the opera Turandot would numb me from the tragedy, but nope. Bannen still made me cry. This is my fifth 5-star read in 2018, and it deserves all of it and so much more. I absolutely loved it — from the inspiration for the story, to the language and descriptions, to the timeline jumps, and everything in between. This is an excellent crossover novel, and I’d love to see more books like this out in the world.
The opera is based on a Persian-translated-into-French story about a Chinese princess and her fall into slavery, combined with a folktale about a princess who locked herself away in a palace on a mountain asking suitors riddles. The Bird and the Blade is the slave girl’s story. Because let’s be real, her story is infinitely better than Turandokht’s. Knowing the opera will not fully prepare you for this immensely emotional journey. Jinghua’s grief, anger, turmoil, fear, and love are so tangible, so authentic and so powerful, that I could not put this book down. Likewise Khalaf’s maturity, intelligence, patience, and kindness made my heart ache. When we get to the end of this tragedy, I was already weeping.
Bannen makes a huge disclaimer in her notes about the historical and fantastical elements in this novel. Because it’s based on an opera, which in itself is based on a translated text on Mongolian culture and history, it can’t necessarily be taken as fact, nor can it be seen as complete folktale. These people, this story, really comes down to Ghengis Khan’s rule and the division of his descendants, and Bannen tried to stay as true as possible to elements of Mongolian Empire history, religion, and culture across Asia and Europe in that time. Needless to say, I was blown away. What a tremendous undertaking. This is every folklore historian’s dream in one book.
What an overwhelmingly, wonderfully descriptive and gorgeous book, full of love and fear and guilt and honor. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.