The Art of Prophecy Brings Artists of Martial War to Their Knees

Cover of The Art of Prophecy.

Ling Taishi, my beloved murderous mom.
Image: Random penguin house

As legendary war artist Ling Taishi watches his nation’s prophesied teenage hero, Wen Jian, performs in an over-decorated gladiatorial arena, she soon realizes that the boy is the worst of all possible outcomes. A cheated, over spoiled, under trained teenage dirt. So much for being the child warrior Zhuun needed to defeat the Eternal KhanTaishi thinks; the boy can barely stand up to undernourished infantry without having his hand held.

Elsewhere, in the middle of border skirmishes between the Zhuun and the Katuia, the Eternal Khan is killed while wandering around in a drunken stupor. Not by Jian, but by a bog-standard Zhuun army patrol, throwing the great hero’s prophecy into utter disarray. The nomadic nation Katuia is decimated, its people forced into indentured servitude and its armies disbanded. But that doesn’t stop the legendary Salminde, the Viperstrike, from seeking a new Khan to unite the Katuia and return them to their former glory.

So begins The art of prophecy, an epic new martial arts fantasy from Wesley Chu. What follows is an incredible feat of wuxia world-building and narrative weaving that intertwines to create a vast and engaging story on par with series like Legends of Condor Heroes, Dandelion Dynastyand the Green Bones Saga. The narrative jumps to many viewpoints, making The art of prophecy partly the labors of a master and student and partly the conqueror’s quest for revenge. With clear characters and a plot that doesn’t meander so long as it intersects with the story at key breaking points, this book is a fantastic example of wuxia-style storytelling, demanding generational legacies, and expectations of great heroes and young children all the same.

Wuxia, for those who don’t know, is a genre of historical fantasy that developed in East Asia, and more specifically in China. Wuxia is an early form and while definitely speculative in nature, it is generally more grounded, focusing on martial artists who have pushed their abilities to the limits of human possibility and beyond, displaying incredible strength and performing supernatural feats through their training. Wuxia stories usually take place in tThe Warring States period of China, or a setting adjacent to fantasy. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is an excellent example of wuxia. Xianxia, ​​a companion genre, has much of the same style, but also brings in gods, demons, ghosts, reincarnation, or a number of more mythical elements. Xianxia is not as popular among Western audiences, but I could quote Marvel’s Shang Chi and the legend of the ten rings or the youth novel iron widow (by Xiran Jay Zhao) as solid examples.

Due to the media mentioned above, as well as the growth of WEastern popularity of Chinese breakout shows like The Untamed and Word of honor (which were originally webnovels), which could be streamed on Netflix, both wuxia and xianxia are experiencing a moment for English-speaking audiences. And for readers who haven’t boarded the train with Ken Liu or RF Kuang, Wesley Chu and The art of prophecy is here to convince you to try cultivation.

In this book, which is the first in a planned trilogy, the characters stand tall amidst remarkable storytelling. The first is my favorite dust bag, Ling Taishi. Taishi is a middle-aged, disabled, one-in-a-generation war artist who doesn’t mess around and offers no excuses for who she is. It is unusual in Western fiction to find an older lady playing the role of a consummate martial badass (there are a few! But not as many as I would like to see, personally), and Taishi has to be one of my favorite new fantasy characters. She occupies the kind of constantly annoyed mentor space in this book that makes her similar to Luke Skywalker in The Last Skywalker, someone who knows he’s too old for this bullshit and who takes it anyway.

Then there’s his pupil (sort of). Our boy-hero, Jian, is such a heartbreaking vision of innocence and forbearance that it’s hard not to feel bad for him. Talented, yes. Pathetic, yes too. He’s trying so hard, but it’s so bad that you want to put him to bed and tell him he can try again tomorrow. His development throughout the book is wonderfully nuanced and clear, and by the end of it all, he has truly earned his place as Ling Taishi’s martial arts heir, making for an incredibly satisfying ending to the first of what will be a fantastic series.

Finally, we have Salminde, another character that I am personally in love with. Her desire for revenge is driven by a deep, personal sense of duty and a code of honor that makes her all the more dangerous because she has so little left to lose. Her need to create a safe place for her family and her people is so relevant that while our main characters are arguably her nemesis, she never comes across as a villain. Every decision she makes is incredibly emotional, as she goes from leader to wanderer to savior over the course of the book.

I’m poetic about the characters, but it must be pointed out that even for people who don’t read wuxia, or generally pick up big epic fantasies, these warriors are so well developed and have so much heart and fervor that they whip the pages, ready to fight at any time. It’s this incredible energy that drives the book forward as it weaves in and out of the plot, providing context and building the structures of the massive epic before the war collapses it. It’s a remarkable feat to read a book that merges so many tropes of Eastern and Western storytelling, giving readers the scope of modern epics like The poppy war trilogy and the promise of the intimate intrigue of The one who became the sun.

This book was, for me, inedible. Going between fights and daring escapes, I never wondered when I would get to this character I really loved, or wondered what happened in the last chapter. Chu shows off in this book, and I’m here for it. There’s so much nuance, wonder, and excitement that I’d be biting my leg to get the whole trilogy right now. An absolutely fantastic start to a series that has already been optioned (rightly) for television, so imagine Michelle Yeoh as my absolute favorite murderous mother and limitless badass Ling Taishi during playback.

There are many wonderful themes and guidelines that cross swords in this book. Acts of faith are undermined, crushed and proven correct through its pages. Ambition is rewarded and destroyed. Hope is found, broken, remade. These are universal themes, made poignant and heartbreaking as families are found, created and brought back to life. Ambitious is a tricky word for the enormity of The art of prophecybut I think that in the absence of something more radical, “ambitious” is about as apt a descriptor as I’m going to find.

The world of The art of prophecy expands as Ling Taishi and Salminde travel its breadth, and every part of the book becomes clearer and clearer, from politics to prophecy. Often in epic fantasy the scope becomes blurry the more you look at the environment, but in this book the distance becomes intertwined scales of armor, creating a legendary piece that ripples through every page, preparing the reader to the next desperate and incredible fight. between martial arts masters.

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Image: Random penguin house

The art of prophecy by Wesley Chu goes on sale August 9.

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