The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #37 (September 22, 2009), page 13.
Bird’s eye view
By Nancy Yi Fan
Hardcover, 219 pages, $15.99
By Josephine Bridges
In her acknowledgements, Nancy Yi Fan notes she was inspired to write Swordbird "when I was a child of ten." What she doesn’t mention is that she was 11 when she wrote this debut novel. Keep an eye on this writer; she’s got a good start and her whole life ahead of her.
The characters in Swordbird are various species of birds, and their names encourage us either to get to know them better or give them a wide berth. The narrative begins with the villains: Bug-eye and Slime-beak are crows, and there’s a hawk named Lord Turnatt, "the Evil, the Conqueror, the Slayer, and Tyrant of soon-to-be-Glooming," the name of a fortress under construction by slavebirds.
Meanwhile, to the north — there’s a fine map at the beginning of the book — the cardinals and the blue jays are at war. Skylion, the young leader of the Bluewingle tribe, is eager for what he believes is retribution against the cardinals, but the elder bluejay Glenagh asks a crucial question: "Does fighting solve the problem?"
Tilosses, a sparrow, Glipper, a flycatcher, and Miltin, a robin, are slavebirds plotting escape from Turnatt and his henchbirds (this word does not appear in Swordbird, but many similar constructions do). Aska, a blue jay, accidentally flies too close to the evildoers’ stronghold, but learns from Miltin that her tribe and the cardinals have been fooled into suspecting each other of crimes for which Turnatt is responsible. The birds swiftly make peace, and the reader can’t help but wonder why humans have so much difficulty doing the same thing.
Aloft in a hot-air balloon, playing a variety of musical instruments, members of the flying Willowleaf Theater make their appearance and join the blue jays and cardinals for a festival celebrating the hatching of Swordbird, who turns out to be the only disappointment in the book, a rehashing of Old Testament God, only with wings. But there’s plenty to keep us occupied, including a food fight with weapons like "merciless nuts" and "bean goo," and a dangerous journey that exacts a terrible toll.
The details of Swordbird are a large part of its charm. Each chapter opens with a quotation from either the Old Scripture — "Don’t forget unexpected dangers in times of peace." — or the Book of Heresy — "Play the same old tricks whenever possible." The line drawings that illustrate the book are gorgeous, and the author had the good sense to give the reader a list of major characters, though it is placed rather oddly at the end of the book.
Nancy Yi Fan moved from China to the United States when she was seven years old, and a marvel of Swordbird is that it was written in the author’s second language. Another marvel is the book’s dedication: "To all who love peace and freedom." An excerpt from the back flyleaf gives us some insight into an extraordinary writer: "After awaking from a vivid dream about birds at war while simultaneously wrestling with her feelings about terrorism and September 11, Nancy wrote Swordbird as a way to convey her message of peace to the world."
I’ll wrap this up with my favorite passage. Should any of us end up in a position of power over someone who has done us or our loved ones harm, this bears remembering:
"Throw stones at them!" a blue jay roared. Many voices agreed.
"Don’t, my friends," Skylion said gently. "They are now helpless and can’t harm us. We will take them prisoner and release them one day, far from Stone-Run. But we cannot be murderers. They have a right to live, as do all creatures that fly, swim, or run on this beautiful earth."