My rating: 5 of 5 Stars
How I Got It: Hardbound Purchase
Publication Date: June 2018
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Point of View: 1st Person Heroine
Genre: YA Historical Adventure
I knew I was going to love this book. I just knew it. I mean, unless the actual writing turned out to be subpar, there was simply no way this book wasn't going to be a favorite.
But . . . even though I knew I was going to love this book . . . I HAD NO IDEA JUST HOW MUCH I WOULD LOVE THIS BOOK.
Here's the thing--I was an honest-to-goodness outcast in high school. Not because I was rebellious or reclusive or anything. Mostly it was because I just didn't like the right things. Even the other outcasts I knew liked the same kinds of outcast-friendly books, movies, and music. Me?
I read the classics. I liked old movies from the 1930s and 40s. And worst of all . . . I listened to opera. For the fun of it.
So yeah. Totally an outcast. But very happy that way, thank you! (And I did find My People eventually, so this is not a pity-party, I promise!)
All that to say, the opera on which The Bird and the Blade is based is one of my favorites--Puccini's Turandot. It's tragic and epic and gorgeous and just stunning. When I was eighteen, I got to see it live. I wore a floor-length, black velvet dress and elbow-length gloves. I mean, when you're going to the opera, you should GO TO THE OPERA. Right? And I cried through the beautiful production and loved every moment.
Of course the best character in the story was the slave girl, Liu. (She also gets several amazing solos, including THIS one.) Hers is the emotional story that carries the whole opera, even if she is "only" a secondary character. She is brave and strong and selfless and just a wonderful heroine in her own right. Turandot is interesting . . . but Liu is the heart and soul of this tale.
And this book . . . this beautiful book is about HER.
In Megan Bannen's version of the tale, the heroine is renamed Jinghua and is a slave to a Mongol prince. Bannen really dove into the heart and head of her heroine in ways I could never have predicted, staying true always to the original character on which she is based, but always deepening and expanding as she went.
Most of the book is actually prolonged "flashback," which I wouldn't ordinarily enjoy . . . but it was so perfectly done in this instance. We keep coming back to the "present" for short intervals as we watch the horrifying Riddles Test play out, but the story of what brought Jinghua, Khalaf, and Timur to this crisis is the real adventure.
I read in an interview that Bannen was heavily inspired by Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief , which features an unreliable narrator, several MASSIVE surprise twists, not to mention a richly developed setting and culture. Turner is one of my all-time favorite authors, so knowing that Bannen was inspired by her also lead me to believe I would love her novel. And I have to say, the influence is VERY evident in all the best possible ways.
So here's the thing readers should probably be aware of going in--this book is tragic. I mean, tears-pouring-down-my-face-as-I-read-the-last-few-pages tragic. Familiar with opera as I am, I wasn't SURPRISED by how things turned out . . . still, I will confess, I kept hoping the author would take some creative liberties and find a different way to bring about her conclusion.
But you know what? I'm glad she didn't. The story ended just the way it should. Everything about the journey led to THAT moment, and to write THAT moment any other way would have been a coward's move.
Megan Bannen is no coward. She courageously tackled this tale and pulled it off brilliantly. It's been a week since I binge-read the whole thing in about a 24 hr. period, and I've not stopped thinking about it since. I bought a second copy and sent it to my best friend. I forced my own copy into my husband's hands, and I keep pestering my mom that she MUST read it as well (she likes a lot of the same kinds of books I do). I can think of at least three more people I'm going to foist this story on, and I fully intend to keep talking it up every chance I get. It's just THAT good.
So yeah--I don't know if Bannen has any more books in the works. But I'm telling you, she has made the VERY short list of authors whose works I will buy on name only going forward. Whatever she writes, I'm there for it. And The Bird and the Blade is a book I'm going to be re-reading and sharing for years to come.