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.
**** Thank you to Balzer + Bray for providing me with an ARC via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review ****
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying “The Bird and the Blade”, it’s a more subtle YA Fantasy but packed a lot of punch nonetheless. And it is more YA Fantasy than Historical Fiction since there are some more fantastical elements and this isn’t supposed to be an accurate retelling of history, historical figures, or events. Even though the author does use real historical figures as some of her characters and they visit real places. It’s ALSO a retelling of the opera Turandot, which I’ll admit I know next to nothing about but I do know the riddles are a part of it!
So here’s a book that’s part historical fiction and part fantasy set in the Mongol Empire and is also a retelling of the opera Turandot. There’s a lot going on but it worked so, so well!
First of all I will say this: you do not need to be familiar with the opera Turandot to enjoy this book. As I already said I didn’t know anything about it until after my reading and I really enjoyed the book! Second of all you don’t need to worry about waiting for any sequels because this is a standalone which is also really refreshing!
The story itself is a bit hard to explain especially at the beginning but that’s part of why I ended up enjoying it so much. We start off witnessing one of the main characters, Prince Kalaf, enter into a challenge in which he must answer three riddles to win the hand of Princess Turandokt if he fails he will be executed. The narrative is told in 1st person from Jinghua’s POV who we soon see is in love with the prince as she watches Kalaf face his potential death. From here we go back into the past as Jinghua describes all of the events leading up to the current timeline. I looooved how suspenseful this made the story and it was also pretty unique to me as well, it kept my attention well throughout my reading!
I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a fast paced book, in fact it is a bit more on the slower side of things but it was written so well I didn’t ever feel bored. And the writing is very gorgeous too, I was completely invested in it and will definitely be looking forward to more of Bannen’s books!
The plot is a little on the romance focused side but for once I found myself not minding it at all. There was enough going on elsewhere that it didn’t feel like romance was all that was going on, political intrigue and bits of action here and there. Also there were some surprising plot twists that I REALLY was not expecting at all, which was fantastic.
Another really interesting aspect of the book was that our narrator and main character, Jinghua, has a very mysterious past and we know next to nothing about her until the very end. I thought this made her character all the more interesting and drove the story forward as well. She also isn’t the typical YA heroine we tend to see in our books these days, she isn’t exceptionally smart, or skilled in combat, or even super beautiful. I liked that Jinghua didn’t fall into any tropes like this and having a plain, relatable, and realistic heroine was a nice change of pace.
Also the ending was a surprise and absolutely heart-wrenching and emotionally destroying. I like being surprised even if my HEART HURTS now!
There aren’t too many characters in this book we have the three more centralized characters: Jinghua, our narrator, Prince Kalaf, whom Jinghua loves, and Timur, the khan of the Kipchak Khanate and also Kalaf’s father. I really loved all of these characters too, as I already briefly mentioned Jinghua is a nice change from our typical YA heroine. She’s more realistic and not a pro with combat or strategy or anything like that, she’s also pretty shy and very hard on herself due to society’s expectations of her. This is where the author takes a look at how women and girls were treated at the time (13th century), how they were valued only for their beauty and cast aside when it fades. In general, Jinghua was precious.
Prince Kalaf himself was also a great character he was kind and generous as well as extremely smart. However, my favorite character was Timur. He starts out being a grump and a pretty hateful person but he does a full 360 and we learn to understand the way he acts and he opens up more. He was also just hilarious at times, I am always a fan of characters that start out hateful and become precious cinnamon rolls.
Overall the characters were extremely fleshed out, showed flaws, and had a lot of personality.
I already briefly discussed that the plot is more on the romance focused side but not overwhelmingly so. I actually really enjoyed it and it was pretty trope free: no insta-love or love triangles. Jinghua does develop a crush on Kalaf almost instantly but she doesn’t consider it love until later on, which was nice, and it’s pretty slow burn. I did like the two of them as well, super adorable and super cute!
What I Loved:
- Pretty much everything? Yeah…everything
- Standalone status
- Engaging plot with unique narrative set up (the switches between past and present)
- Lovely writing
- Political intrigue and action made things interesting
- Plot twists at the end I was NOT prepared for!
- Non-typical YA heroine
- Well developed and complex characters
- Timur (he deserves his own bullet point because he’s just a great character)
- Slow burn, non-tropey romance
- The ending hurt my heart in the best way (I don’t know why I am this way. Help.)
What I Didn’t Love:
- It was a bit on the slow side at times
I highly, highly recommend checking out “The Bird and the Blade” it’s just such a unique read and really stands out to me in the mix of other YA books. Prepare to be emotionally destroyed though, just a heads up!