by Megan Bannen
Published on June 5, 2018 by Balzer + Bray
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom … until she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father as they flee from their enemies 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.
THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is a lush, powerful story of life and death, battles and riddles, lies and secrets from debut author Megan Bannen.
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I don’t know what I expected with The Bird and the Blade but what I got was WAY better than I thought possible.
Y’all. I loved this book. LOVED IT. It’s tragic and packed with emotion and written in a unique style that immediately grabbed my attention. For the record, I had no idea that this was actually a retelling of the Italian opera Turandot. Set in the Mongol Empire, the story follows a prince, Khalaf, who seeks the hand of the Princess Turandokht. To win her over, he must solve her 3 riddles.
And there’s more to it, but I wouldn’t want to spoil this book for you because it stuck close to the opera’s overall story arc from what I’ve read.
But this story isn’t told from Khalaf’s view, or Turandokht. No, it comes from a slave girl, Jinghua, the last of the Song dynasty. She ends up in the charge of Khalaf and his father Timur, who she describes as an “old goat” which I think is a pretty accurate description, as they head to the Mongol capital to solve Turandokht’s riddles. Except. . . they’re already there.
So I don’t like summarizing in reviews but I wanted to mention that bit because this story alternates between sections of Jinghua, Khalaf, and Timur traveling to the capital and already being IN the capital as Khalaf starts solving riddles.
I was hooked.
You’re thrown in enough to make things interesting but Bannen brings you back to catch up to where the story kicks off. And those flashes forward in time only serve to heighten the tension because you sort of know what’s going to happen, but not really. So then you’re anticipating the fate of everyone (which makes this book great for reading in one sitting, by the way).
But let me jump back to the characters for a minute. Jinghua is in the lead and she has this secret that I started guessing about the halfway point but remained a mystery until near the end. It serves as the basis for all of her decisions and the closer you get to the reveal, the more everything starts to fall into place. The Bird and the Blade is an intricate riddle of its own, each piece so thoughtfully interwoven to deliver the final blow at story’s end. That said, I will say I wasn’t a HUGE fan of Jinghua immediately falling for Khalaf because it read pretty insta-lovey and not in the good way, but it also worked in a way, adding that flare for the dramatic that I realized once I finished was present throughout the story.
Because the ending. No matter how much you hope and dream for something different, remains true to the opera and that is all I will say on that note. It was heartbreaking and painful and so perfect but also a part of me wishes that Bannen had gone a different route. Which isn’t a comment against her writing, simply my own wishful thinking.
After finishing The Bird and the Blade, I read the author’s note and was curious about Turandot, and I found that it’s kind of an awful opera in everything that it stands for. So when I went to review this book, I was torn because it did stay true to the opera in many ways (both good and bad) that I don’t necessarily agree with.
But. I decided to treat this book as it was when I picked it up, with no knowledge that it was a retelling, so my feelings on this book are from my initial reaction, for full transparency.
I picked up this book because I happen to love the Netflix Original series Marco Polo, set in the Mongol Empire, but I stayed for the writing and execution of a masterfully crafted retelling. Hands down, one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and I CANNOT WAIT for what Bannen will give us next!