Sunday, June 09, 2024

Ballad of Sword and Wine Vol. 1 by Tang Jiu Qing: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Ballad of Sword and Wine by Tang Jiu Qing

Ballad of Sword and Wine: Qiang Jin Jiu is the latest Chinese boylove series translated by Seven Seas. It’s set in a secondary world that resembles ancient China with its culture, but with a completely different geography. The book even comes with a helpful map.

A war has almost ended in defeat when Prince Shen Wei shamefully fled before the enemy before killing himself. All his family has died too, except the youngest, illegitimate son, Shen Zechuan. He’s fourteen and hasn’t even met his father, as he’s been raised by his shifu, Ji Gang. Nevertheless, he’s been brought to the nation’s capital to face death for what his father has done. But political machinations and the Dowager Empress intervene, and he’s confined to a house arrest instead.

Xiao Chiye is sixteen and a son of another warrior prince. His family had to step up to defend the nation when Shen Wei fled. He’s a volatile young man and he hates Shen Zechuan for what his father has done. But political machinations catch him too, and the reward he’s granted to command the useless Imperial Army is in fact a prison for him too, as he’s basically held hostage in the capital to keep his family from revolting.

The main story starts five years later. Tides turn again, and Shen Zechuan is released, much to the dismay of the nation. Xiao Chiye’s hatred hasn’t eased at all, and he makes it his business to make life difficult for Shen Zechuan. But the emperor is dying and he doesn’t have children. People have started to take sides, and Xiao Chiye has his own player in the game. And behind the scenes, helped by his shifu and an old teacher of the former crown prince, Shen Zechuan is working on his revenge.

When the plot comes to a point, the two young men find themselves on the same side and Shen Zechuan ends up saving Xiao Chiye’s life. Their lives become tangled, but their animosity doesn’t ease. The problem for Xiao Chiye is, however, that he’s finding himself attracted to the younger man. For his part, Shen Zechuan is willing to make most of the attraction to get his revenge. It’s a game about power and manipulation that slowly comes to a point.

This was a great book. The two men were very similar in how they gave the world to understand they are useless while hiding their true strength and intent. Shen Zechuan is a dainty, beautiful man who seems to be plagued by an ill health. But he’s traumatized by the war and almost sociopathic in his behaviour when he finally has the chance for revenge. Xiao Chiye pretends to be a wastrel and  drunkard, while he’s reorganising and training the Imperial Army for a coup.

Court intrigue dominates the plot, but the relationship between the two men is its backbone. It’s in no way romantic in this first book. Both are using the other for their own ends, and neither trusts the other. Xiao Chiye is open about his lust, but determined to control it. Shen Zechuan doesn’t feel the same, but in a fit of anger, he’s willing to push things to a point. The book ends with a bedroom scene, quite literally with a climax. It’s a slightly odd choice, but kind of works well with the tone of the book, and leaves the reader desperate for more.

The book is well written and doesn’t suffer from the over-abundance of telling instead of showing like so many of these Chinese BL series. Court machinations and background stories are handled in the dialogue, there are no repetitions, and the story advances in a fast pace. The opening chapters have some descriptions of torture, and there’s a very disturbing scene of animal cruelty in chapter 18: Donkey Roast, which you can easily skip, though it’s referred to later. All in all, one of the best BL series translated so far. I’ll definitely continue with it.

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