Very rarely do I give any book a 1-star rating. I think I don’t even give 1 stars to books I dislike and DNF. Now this one I finished and still gave a 1 star to, which is really telling for me as a reader. Truthfully, I had high hopes for this book, but everything slowly unraveled to become a book I will not recommend to others.
TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide — This trigger warning is a spoiler for the book. With that being said, please know that from this point forward, my review will not be spoiler-free.
Title: The Bird and the Blade
Author: Megan Bannen
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: June 5, 2018
Genre: Young adult, historical fiction, romance
Length: 419 pages (hardcover)
Synopsis: (via Goodreads) “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.
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.”
What originally peaked my interest for this book was the Asian characters and setting. Even more so that it was about the Mongol Empire, which I don’t know much about to begin with. That, fortunately, didn’t deter from the story. I can’t exactly where I saw that this book is based on the Italian (?) opera called Turandot, which pulls from the ancient fairytale of Princess Turandokht, who tasks any man who wishes to marry her to solve three riddles. If they fail, they will die. When one prince manages to do so (in this case like the opera), Turandokht refuses to marry him, so the prince gives her a riddle: one to find out his name. Beyond that I don’t know how true the story is to the book, but the author provides some great insight into the history of the story, including the setting and some of the characters.
The thing is I really did enjoy diving into this world. Bannen writes really good world-building, including (what I assume to be) a dialect of Chinese, songs, folktales, etc.. She did her research, but it was simply the characters I could not fall for. The main character, Jinghua, is a slave to the royal family of the Kipchak Khanate, but when they become overrun, the surviving khan (king), Timur, and his son, Prince Khalaf must go into exile. Jinghua goes with them and continues to travel on despite the heaps of verbal abuse she faces from Timur, who’d rather sell her and use the money to buy food and boarding. However, Prince Khalaf will not allow it. From the very first moment we meet the prince through Jinghua’s eyes, she falls head over heels in love with him. I’m talking about the insta-love kind, which can be written fairly well. But here… I wasn’t convinced. She likes him because he’s kind to her, and while there are hints that he might reciprocate her feelings, there’s not. It’s obvious that Jinghua is hiding something as well, and while I guessed it, there was a plot twist I didn’t see coming at all.
As for the other characters, I felt completely meh about them. Timur never comes off as endearing or even a great father figure. He constantly nags and complains about his son, and he never fully views Jinghua as a worthy human until the very end. Prince Khalaf, while wise and knowledgeable, unswerving in his religious views, doesn’t give me much to consider, especially in his regards to Jinghua. He sees the only way to save his kingdom is to marry Turandokht, binding himself to a powerful province and ally. Fine. Politically matches were just a thing back then. But then unfurls the connection between Jinghua and Turandokht, which is really just a thin string. The former as her own reasons for disliking the latter.
The disheartening part is the actual end, which is really just the nail is the very literal coffin. This is where a trigger warning would have been nice. I understand that it follows the opera, but that doesn’t mean the author couldn’t have changed it. Despite Turandokht eventually answering Khalaf’s riddle, it’s not without its sacrifice, who happens to be Jinghua. In all that she lost–family, home, freedom, and now the “love of her life” in form of Khalaf–she sees the only way to save him is to commit suicide. I could not have been angrier at this outcome. One of the worst parts is that we get a brief glimpse into Khalaf and Turandokht’s marriage, which plainly states that the two never came to love each other and that Khalaf constantly thought of Jinghua throughout his marriage.
Please give Asian characters the ending they deserve, not some roughly Romeo and Juliet-esque ending. I do not need to see Asian characters committing suicide as a mean to escape their fate. As a survivor of suicide and someone who is half-Asian that is literally the last thing I want to see in a book.
I found Aila’s review over at Happy Indulgence to be very helpful as well, as she is also an #ownvoices reviewer. However, she did not finish the book and you can read why in her post. If you’d like to read a positive review of the book, check out Dani @ Perspective of a Writer. Vicky @ Vicky Who Reads also has a great, glowing post and review for this book. [Edit 07/26/18: Vicky also posted a comment in response to my review, so please read that and check out her review. I’d also like to add that she is an #ownvoices reviewer for The Bird and the Blade as well, which I didn’t note previously because I was unsure. Thank you, Vicky! 🙂 )