The Art of Prophecy Brings Martial War Artists to Their Knees

The Art of Prophecy Brings Martial War Artists to Their Knees

As legendary war artist Ling Taishi watches the teenaged prophesied hero of her nation, Wen Jian, perform in an over-decorated gladiatorial arena, she quickly realises that the boy is the worst of all possible outcomes. A deluded, over-indulged, under-trained teenage dirtbag. So much for being the child warrior the Zhuun needed to defeat the Eternal Khan, Taishi thinks; the boy can barely hold his own against underfed foot soldiers without having his hand held.

Elsewhere, amid the 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 prophecy of the great hero into total disarray. The nomadic Katuia nation is decimated, her people forced into indentured servitude, and her armies disbanded. But that’s not stopping 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, a new epic martial arts fantasy from Wesley Chu. What follows is an incredible feat of wuxia worldbuilding and narrative weaving that intertwines to create an expansive and engaging story on par with series like Legends of the Condor Heroes, Dandelion Dynasty, and the Green Bone Saga. The narrative skips across many points of view, making The Art of Prophecy part travails of a master and student and part conqueror revenge quest. With clear characters and a plot that doesn’t so much meander as intersect with the story at key breaking points, this book is a fantastic example of wuxia-style storytelling, exacting generational legacies and expectations on great heroes and young children all the same.

Wuxia, for those who don’t know, is a genre of historical fantasy that has developed in Eastern Asia, and, more specifically, China. Wuxia is an early form and while definitely speculative in nature, is typically more grounded, focusing on martial artists who have pushed their abilities to the very boundaries of human possibility and beyond, exhibiting incredible strength and achieving supernatural feats through their training. Wuxia stories are typically set in the Warring States period of China, or some fantasy-adjacent setting. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great example of wuxia. Xianxia, a companion genre, has a lot of the same style, but also brings in gods, demons, ghosts, reincarnation, or any number of more mythic elements. Xianxia is not as popular among western audiences, but I might point to Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or the young adult novel Iron Widow (by Xiran Jay Zhao) as solid examples.

Because of the media mentioned above, as well as the growing Western popularity of breakout Chinese shows like The Untamed and Word of Honour (which were originally webnovels), which could be streamed on Netflix, wuxia and xianxia are both experiencing a cultural moment for English-speaking audiences. And for those readers who didn’t get on board the train with Ken Liu or R. F. Kuang, Wesley Chu and The Art of Prophecy is here to convince you to give cultivation a try.

In this book, which is the first of a planned trilogy, standing tall amid standout narration are the characters. First is my favourite elder dirtbag, Ling Taishi. Taishi is a past-middle-aged, handicapped, once-in-a-generation war artist who does not fuck around and offers no excuses for who she is. It’s unusual in Western fiction to find an older lady taking on the role of consummate martial badass (there are a few out there! Just not as many as I’d like to see, personally), and Taishi has got to be one of my new favourite 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 they’re too old for this bullshit and takes it on anyway.

Then there’s her student (sort of). Our boy-hero, Jian, is such a heart-wrenching vision of innocence and indulgence that it’s hard not to feel bad for him. Talented, yes. Pathetic, also yes. He tries so hard, but he’s such an absolute dummy that you just want to tuck him into 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’s really earned his place as Ling Taishi’s martial arts inheritor, making an incredibly satisfying ending to the first of what will be a fantastic series.

Lastly, we have Salminde, another character that I’m personally in love with. Her desire for vengeance is driven by a deep, personal sense of duty and a code of honour that makes her all the more dangerous because she has very little left to lose. Her need to create a safe place for her family and her people is so relatable that even though 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 a leader to a wanderer and then becomes a saviour over the course of the book.

I’m waxing poetic about the characters, but it has to be emphasised that even for folks who don’t read wuxia, or usually pick up big doorstopper epic fantasies, these warriors are so well developed and have so much heart and fervor that they whip off the pages, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. It’s this incredible energy that drives the book forward as it weaves in and out of the plot, providing context and building up the structures of the massive epic before wartime brings it crashing down. It’s a remarkable feat to read through 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 She Who Became the Sun.

This book was, for me, un-put-downable. Flitting in between fights and daring escapes, I wasn’t ever wondering when I would get to that character I really liked, or asking myself what happened in the last chapter. Chu is showing off in this book, and I’m here for it. There’s so much nuance, wonder, and excitement that I would chew off my own leg to get the whole trilogy right now. An absolutely fantastic start to a series that has (very deservedly) already been optioned for TV, so please imagine Michelle Yeoh as my absolute favourite murder momma and no-holds-barred badass Ling Taishi while reading.

There’s a lot of wonderful themes and through-lines that cross swords in this book. Acts of faith are undermined, overwritten, and proven correct across its pages. Ambition is rewarded and destroyed. Hope is found, shattered, remade. These are universal themes, made poignantly heart-breaking as families are found, made, and brought back to life. Ambitious is a delicate word for the enormity of The Art of Prophecy, but I think in the absence of something more sweeping, ‘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 across its breadth, and every part of the book becomes more and more clear, from the politics to the prophecy. Often in epic fantasy, the scope becomes blurry as you look at more of the surrounds, but in this book, distance becomes interwoven scales of armour, creating a legendary piece that ripples across every page, preparing the reader for the next desperate, incredible fight between martial arts masters.

Image: Penguin Random House
Image: Penguin Random House

The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu goes on sale August 9.

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