The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
4.5 Stars with a bump for originality!
Megan Bannen's The Bird and the Blade is a retelling of the story that underpins one of my favorite operas, Puccini's opera Turandot, which I like for its music and pageantry. The opera Turandot owes its origins to a French adaptation of a story ("Prince Khalaf and the Princess of China," from the collection The Thousand and One Days by François Pétis de la Croix) of one of the seven princess stories in the Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties) by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. The Turandokht of the original story has, as Bannen points out, been filtered by a misogynistic lens in the era during which the Puccini libretto was written, with Turandot being cold, haughty and cruel because she doesn't want to marry and be subservient to a husband. (The horror!) While Turandokht is perhaps less cruel in the original story, the role of the slave girl was altered by Puccini from that of a spy in the original story to that of a loyal servant, who loves Prince Khalaf (Calaf) and his father, Timur. Bannen merged these two versions, with a somewhat less cruel Turandokht and a loyal slave girl Jinhua/Liù into a new retelling with fascinating results. Jinhau is a Song dynasty princess of a region conquered by Mongols who has been sold into slavery. She has lost her freedom and become chattel, all too common a fate for women, whether enslaved or not, throughout history. Turandokht strives hard to retain her freedom by setting three seemingly insurmountable riddles to be answered by potential suitors, with a penalty of death for those who fail as a further deterrent. Crafting a story with a learned and compassionate Khalaf (the Blade), a bullying father, Timur (in the West, historically Tamerlane), Jinhua (the Bird), a slave girl and former princess with her own agenda, and Weiji, her dead brother's prodding ghost, Bannen has managed to write a moving YA novel with elements of adventure, romance, tragedy, political intrigue, and historical fiction. It is truly amazing that she pulled this off. It is also gratifying that, just as I always wondered how Khalaf/Calaf could marry Turandokht after the slave girl's sacrifice, Bannen envisions an Epilogue in which sacrifice is honored.
Readers don't have to know anything about opera, or the original Turandot story, in order to enjoy this book, which is an inventive YA novel.
I'm off to listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing "Nessun Dorma" and contemplate the Quiet Flower.
I received a paper ARC edition of this book from Balzer and Bray with no commitment to review.
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