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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #28 (July 11, 2006), page 12.
Book offers mystical kung-fu drama
Sign of the Qin
By L.G. Bass
Hyperion Books for Children, 2004
Hardcover, 383 pages, $17.99
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
In a faraway place lost in the shadows of history, a boy and his band of rebels must fulfill the prophecy of his birth by defeating the evil empire terrorizing their land. No, it’s not Star Wars or The Lord of The Rings, but Sign of the Qin, a book for middle readers by L.G. Bass. The novel combines these familiar elements with Chinese myth and history to weave an elaborate kung-fu fantasy. In spite of some minor flaws, young readers will find much to enjoy in the first book of the Outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh trilogy, and they will anxiously await the sequel.
The novel begins with the birth of the emperor’s first son, Zong, who is marked with the Qin ideogram, emblem of the rebellion. When the emperor sees the birthmark, he is convinced that the child is not his, and banishes Zong’s mother, Silver Lotus, from the palace. Before she leaves, Silver Lotus whispers to her son that his real father is the Starlord Hung Wu, and that Zong — the new Starlord — must restore justice to the kingdom. Meanwhile, the leaders of the rebellion, White Streak and Black Whirlwind, learn from their father that their destiny is to help Zong defeat the long-slumbering demons that have been unleashed upon the land. And in Heaven, the Master Hand chooses the wily and roguish Monkey to be the Starlord’s Guardian, protecting him from the machinations of Yamu, Lord of the Dead. The Master also sends the Tattooed Monk, martial arts master, to guard Monkey.
Confused yet? One of the book’s defects is its immense cast of characters, helpfully listed in a dramatis personae at the start of the book, but difficult to follow regardless. There are half a dozen more important, similarly named characters, including Jade Mirror, Day Rat, and Spotted Leopard, and it can be hard keeping them all apart, especially as the tale weaves in and out of the various threads involving all these humans, demons, and deities. This points to another problem — because these main character and many secondary characters are mystically endowed superheroes, children won’t be able to easily sympathize or identify with them.
Much more appealing are the mythic and historic underpinnings of the plot, as well as the tidbits of Chinese wisdom offered at the start of each chapter. Bass has drawn heavily on both Chinese myth and a medieval Chinese historic novel called The Marsh Chronicles, about a similar band of outlaws; her research shows itself prominently in every nook and cranny of the book. Head-spinning as it can sometimes be to follow the twisting plot and its many characters, Bass clearly has a reason for making the choices she does, and her confident prose will inspire readers to learn more about the myths and legends behind the novel.
Bass also begins each chapter with a Chinese ideogram and an epigram appropriate to the chapter; an index at the back explains the meaning of the former. The epigrams, on the other hand, are like Zen koans for the reader to decipher, often suggesting more than they reveal, deepening the thickly layered Asian themes. And the storyline itself builds on typical Asian martial-arts themes, such as defending the weak, the proper use of violence, and the triumph of virtue.
Hardcore kung-fu fans may be disappointed by the lack of details in many of the fight sequences. Bass chooses either to summarize the action, or to have her characters employ mystical moves that are more spiritual than physical. Those looking for the latest leg-sweep or proper quarterstaff fighting technique will not find it here. Unfortunately, much of the plot depends upon the Starlord and others learning different kung-fu fighting styles, from crane to tiger to monkey, but we are never shown what these styles are, nor are their differences satisfactorily explained. As this is an ongoing theme, Bass may be leaving these descriptions for future books, but it is still a mild let-down.
Nonetheless, young readers will find much to sink their teeth into, so long as their kung-fu tastes run more towards the mystical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than the flying fists of Enter The Dragon. As is typical of the first book of a trilogy, Sign of the Qin raises far more questions than it answers, and ends with a suggestion of how of the sequel will begin. Girls will be happy to see that women play a prominent role in the action, from plotting to fighting, a deliberate choice on the part of Bass. And everyone will be delighted to read a tightly constructed, elaborate fantasy in which virtue prevails and evil is vanquished, even if future books will show these victories to be temporary.