Opening Anna Holmwood’s deft translation of A Hero Born, a prefatory list of characters promises the delights waiting within. Skyfury Guo, The Seven Freaks of the South, Quick Hands Zhu Cong the Intelligent, and Twice Foul Dark Wind stand poised to jump-kick readers into a rich, thrilling, sometimes whacky world.

A Hero Born is the first book of The Legends of the Condor Heroes, a seminal series of wuxia (martial hero) novels serialized in the 1950s. The story unfolds in turbid times, when three powers vied for mastery of China: the Jin dynasty of Manchuria, the Southern Song dynasty, and the eventual conquerors, the Mongols. Guo Jing, a boy from Song lands whose father was murdered by Jin assassins, grows up on the Mongolian steppe, an oddly welcoming place:

They may not have had the grand outward trappings of other great civilisations, but the Mongolians were a refined people. They did not swear, even against their gravest enemies or in jest. To step inside a ger [Mongolian tent] was to be treated with utmost hospitality, whether friend or foe, and a guest was to return this favour with decorum.

While Guo Jing is steeped in Mongol ways, he also studies under the Seven Freaks of the South, a bickering band of martial artists who train him to avenge his slain father. Yet they often grumble about his clumsiness and dim wits. Soon after first meeting him, they see Guo Jing dashing to warn his friend of a rival boy about to unleash his pet leopards upon him.

“But if you follow, the leopards might get you too. Aren’t you scared?”

“Yes.”

“And you still want to go?”

Guo Jing hesitated for only a moment before answering. “Yes!”

He then turned and began running as fast as his legs would allow.

Zhu Cong was still in pain and draped over his horse’s back. He looked across at Guo Jing and said, “The boy is not the most intelligent, but he’s brave all the same.”

Through his perseverance and pure heart, Guo Jing finally gains the skills to pursue his destiny. Upon completing his training, he travels south with his mentors, becomes embroiled in political intrigues and cultivates romance with an enigmatic warrioress.

A Hero Born boasts a splendor it wears lightly. This owes to the erudition of Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yun). Born in 1924 to an illustrious family in Zhejiang, war and the Communist takeover drove Cha to Hong Kong. He worked as a journalist and author, his early novels serialized in newspapers. In short order he became a publishing giant, an estimated 300 million of his books now in circulation.

Cha’s interest in Chinese history led to him, in his 80s, earning a PhD in the subject from Cambridge University. His earlier dedication to the subject is plain in A Hero Born. Jin Yong presents an alchemy of history and fantasy, mingling historical persons such as Genghis Khan and his generals with the Seven Freaks, very much figures of the wuxia tradition. He portrays the roiling political landscape of China, while also depicting the jianghu, the “Rivers and Lakes,” an underworld of martial artists and vagabonds with its own codes and culture, one of the conventions of wuxia fiction.

The stuff of 13th century Chinese life, combined with the argot of the jianghu, would confound many translators. Fortunately, Holmwood keeps the story rollicking along. She must have faced some challenging passages in which balancing pace, depth and clarity came with sacrifices. Holmwood also provides a concise introduction and select notes to the text (unfortunately, these aren’t indicated within the text and demand periodic flips to the back to check if something receives commentary).

The translation also ably handles the novel’s dramatic tonal swings. One clash takes the form of a drinking contest, a Taoist adept calling on his powers to cause booze to seep out his feet. Later, we leave comedy behind for a creepy, intense sequence atop a hill in Mongolia. The Seven Freaks discover neatly stacked human skulls with finger-sized holes punched through them – evidence of Nine Yin Skeleton Claw, the signature technique of Twice Foul Dark Wind, a diabolical husband-and-wife team. Only through combining their strength do the Freaks land a blow against Cyclone Mei, the wife of this evil pair.

“My dear harpy, are you alright?” Hurricane Chen called over.

“They blinded me!” Cyclone Mei growled back from where she was slumped against a tree. “Bastard husband of mine, if you let even one of the scoundrels go, I will kill you myself.”

Such wild swings between tenors, more common in Chinese than western storytelling, often baffle foreign readers. But thanks to Jin Yong’s (and Holmwood’s) skill, from the vicious battle on the Mongolian hilltop to full-blooded adventure to comedy, each sequence belongs to the whole.

Those not swept up by the spirit of the novel can find faults. Few sentences sing (though many Chinese praise Jin Yong’s stately sentences, and likely here the gap between the Chinese and English languages yawns widest). Some with a weak stomach for coincidence might find its frequency grating (Twice Foul Dark Wind’s lair happens to be on the hilltop where Guo Jing trains, he encounters an important character while walking down a street, and so forth). Yet the story never flags in its gallop across its epic canvas, and occasional coincidence neatly accomplishes this. The Chinese adage “No coincidence, no story” also suggests the weight of fate and destiny in traditional Chinese storytelling, quite distinct from the stricter “Character is plot, plot is character” – as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it – of most western narratives.

A Hero Born and The Legends of the Condor Heroes rapidly joined the bedrock of Chinese-language pop culture. Jin Yong’s work has been directly adapted as movies, television shows, video games and in other media, and inspired a gamut of other works. Anna Holmwood’s translation allows English readers to enter Jin Yong’s lush world and tap into a literary phenomenon that has charmed millions of people.

A Hero Born is published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, and is available from Amazon and other retailers. Guo Jing’s adventures continue in the next volume, A Bond Undone, expected in January.

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Based in Beijing, Scott Forbes Crawford has contributed to Medieval Warfare and Ancient History magazines, and The History Network podcast series. He co-wrote a film currently in development and is completing a novel of a Roman soldier’s adventures in Han-dynasty China.