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The Bird and the Blade

Review

The Bird and the Blade

Megan Bannen’s THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is an impressive, well-researched debut historical fantasy that will stay with readers long after the back cover meets the last page.
 
I was intrigued by THE BIRD AND THE BLADE when I first heard about it, because it is a retelling of an opera. THAT is something that has never been done before in YA (as far as I know). Puccini’s original tragedy, "Turandot," is about a prince who falls in love with a cold-hearted princess, and who must solve three riddles in order to marry her. The price if he fails? His life. Bannen’s novel focuses the story on a side character from the opera: Jinghua, the Chinese slave girl who is loyal to the prince, Khalaf, and his father the Khan, Timur. Additionally, we soon learn that Jinghua has fallen in love with the prince.
 
The order in which the story is told is complex and unique. The novel is separated into seven parts. Three of the sections are dedicated to the present day, where Jinghua is witnessing Khalaf’s attempt to solve the princess’s three riddles. We also get to see the tale of Jinghua and Khalaf’s romance unfold in between these scenes, in order to gain a better understanding of what is at stake in the present and to heighten the emotions at play --- namely, the impossible love that the slave Jinghua harbors for the young prince. It also helps to create a feeling of helplessness in the readers, because no matter what happens in the past, we know that it resulted in the prince’s entrance into this deadly contest.

"Megan Bannen’s THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is an impressive, well-researched debut historical fantasy that will stay with readers long after the back cover meets the last page."

Overall, Bannen did an excellent job with this retelling. Her writing is exquisite, the storyline was meticulously thought out and the characters were well written. Although I do not know the original opera in great detail, Bannen definitely fleshed Jinghua out a lot more in this version, and gave her more control and agency over her situation, and made her more courageous in general. That is not to say she isn’t flawed, but her flaws only made her all the more relatable. Some of my favorite internal narratives from Jinghua are of her ruminating over the way that a woman’s beauty is tied to her worth in society, something I think is, unfortunately, still prevalent in modern culture.
 
The relationships among the three core characters are a special highlight. The slow burn romance between Jinghua and Khalaf creates yearning in both the leads and the readers. The scenes between these two characters are very romantic, and I loved that Jinghua was attracted to Khalaf because of his intellect, not his looks. Also, the romance scenes were well-balanced throughout the story. The father-like, love-hate relationship between Jinghua and Timur, for example, is a source of much needed levity in the novel, as their bickering is full of, paradoxically, veiled affection and unforgiving bite. Timur himself will probably be a favorite among the readers, as his cynical humor is able to ground the narrative to keep Jinghua and Khalaf’s romance from reaching too far into the clouds. He is also the creator of my new favorite comeback: “‘Go suck your used tea leaves!’” These character-focused scenes are also balanced with action and political intrigue, so no one aspect overpowers the others.
 
I only have one major drawback. While I really loved most of Bannen’s writing, sometimes she used colloquialisms that definitely would not have existed in the thirteenth century. Some of the writing, both Jinghua’s narration and the dialogue among characters, included phrases that are used in common casual conversation today. The rest of Bannen’s writing was so well done, and the efforts that she went to to build this ancient, mythological world were so effective and well executed, that the single use of a poorly placed curse or modern, flirty phrase was jarring, and unfortunately removed me from the narrative at times. I found that this became less of a problem in the middle and end of the novel, only because the world had become richer to me, but it is still something that stuck out as a problem. Should these phrases have been removed, I do not feel that they would have been missed. In fact, I believe their absence would contribute to the overall authenticity of the novel and in fact elevate it even higher in quality. Admittedly, this may not bother other readers as much as it bothered me.
 
THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is a stunning standalone debut novel, perfect for fans of THE WRATH AND THE DAWN and AND I DARKEN. Anyone who enjoys historical fantasies (historical accuracy-light), a slow-burn romance, political intrigue or just some really awesome action scenes, pick this book up now! I am fairly certain it will not disappoint, and I think that, like me, you will be eagerly awaiting Megan Bannon’s sophomore novel.

Reviewed by Cat Barra on June 14, 2018

The Bird and the Blade
by Megan Bannen