I read The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil.
Anyway, back to The Black Trillium.
It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve ever read in English – that is, unless one chooses to define the term ‘wuxia’ broadly (if you make the definition of wuxia broad enough, it includes Batman, and if you make it even broader than that, then a lot of American superhero stories would start qualifying – though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero novel). It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve read which was ~written~ in English (unless, once again, one is using a very broad definition). For me, part of the appeal of the novel was seeing how Simon McNeil adapted wuxia jargon and tropes to the English language for an Anglo audience. Sometimes while I was reading the novel I found myself instantly translating what was written back into Chinese and thinking ‘ah ha, I know what that is’ (for example, ‘lightness skill’ obviously means 輕功).
It’s also the first wuxia novel I’ve read which is set in the future rather than the past (or an alternate universe).
Specifically, it is set in a post-industrial future. And one of the protagonists is a barbarian girl from a desert (which does not exist in our time) who learns how to use a sword and goes into scary mysterious tunnels from the industrial era. And there’s a protagonist who is a youth who must learn how to lead a group of rebels who are rebelling against a monarchy. And the current king had usurped the throne. And YET ANOTHER protagonist (antagonist?) is a disgraced son of the king, who knows that his father favors his incompetent brothers over him, and he is planning to prove that he is the most capable ruler and eventually take the throne from his father. And the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist also has a very close friend who dies brutally and tragically in the course of the story. And there is a lot of sword fighting. And did I mention that there is a search for a mysterious old doctor who is the only one who can treat a particular aliment?
Wait a minute, is this an wuxia novel, or a girls’ comic book?
No seriously, while that long paragraph accurately describes The Black Trillium, it also accurately describes Basara by Yumi Tamura, which is a shojo manga (shojo manga = girls’ comic book). It has also been adapted into an anime, though I’ve only seen on episode.
Obviously, there are some major differences, such as Basara being set in post-industrial Japan, whereas The Black Trillium is set in post-industrial Canada. With a very broad definition, I suppose one could label Basara as being wuxia, and it certainly uses many tropes which are also common in wuixa fiction, but it does not draw specifically on the Chinese wuxia tradition the way The Black Trillium does.
Who destroys the army’s food reserves? I don’t know. I mean, I know it was not the Black Trillium because the novel really rubs it in that THE BLACK TRILLIUM WAS NOT RESPONSIBLE, but who was? For a while I was suspecting it was Sophie of all characters. Was it Brutus? Was it Paul? I don’t feel it really made much sense for Brutus or Paul, to be honest.
Okay, maybe the novel does at some point say who burned down the military granary and I just missed it. If that is the case, then I wish the novel were written in a way which would make that plot detail more difficult to miss.
I do feel that The Black Trillium is missing some key things BUT it is pretty clear that the ending is meant to be the launching point for a sequel, and it is very possible that the elements which I feel are missing in this novel are intended for the sequel. After all, this novel is less than 400 pages long, whereas wuxia novels – ESPECIALLY wuxia novels with multiple protagonists/POV characters – tend to run 1000+ pages long. Complaining that a wuxia novel under 400 pages is missing some of the stuff which I would expect to see in a 1000+ page wuxia novel may be a bit unfair.
I am willing to suspend judgement on the things which I feel are missing in the novel as long as they appear in the sequel, if a sequel ever appears.
With one exception.
Before I try to find words for the one thing which I really wish the novel had regardless of any potential sequels, I am going to give an example.
In The Black Trillium, there is a character, the Wizard in Green, who is trying to find his daughter Sophie and bring her back home. Sophie does not want to go home and – this is the part which is relevant – seems to have no love for her father. Not that he displays much love for her either. Granted, he wants her to be alive and safe, but it feels like he is mechanically fulfilling a vow he made to her mother, not expressing his love for his daughter. And it’s not even clear whether he is trying to fulfil his vow to Sophie’s mother just on principle, or whether he has deep feelings on the line.
It’s pretty clear that the Wizard in Green was inspired by Huang Yaoshi in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳). Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi has a wilful daughter who runs away from home so she can pursue her own goals. Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi goes looking for his daughter. Like the Wizard in Green, the mother of Huang Yaoshi’s daughter has been dead for quite a while.
The difference is that, whereas it’s not clear that either the Wizard in Green or Sophie have strong feelings for any other human being (as opposed to mechanically following principle), it is bloody obvious that Huang Yaoshi has very powerful feelings about both his dead wife and his daughter. When someone tells Huang Yaoshi that his daughter is dead, his reaction is *cough* quite something *cough cough*. And when he is reunited with his daughter who is alive after all, it’s such an emotional scene that I broke down in tears when I read it. And even though Huang Yaoshi’s daughter ran away from home, she still clearly has some strong feelings and attachments to her father, and when ~he~ goes missing, she spends months looking for him.
I’m not saying that the Wizard in Green and Sophie have to have a relationship exactly like Huang Yaoshi and his daughter, in fact I prefer that it be at least a little different. But I would have liked at least one of them demonstrate a strong attachment, negative or positive or a bit of both, to the other. Or if not them, then for other characters to demonstrate that.
I mean, sometimes we are told that Character A is emotionally attached to Character B. For example, we are told repeatedly that Marc Antonelli are best friends, but we never see that. Their friendship is pretty much offpage until Kyle starts suspecting Marc Antonelli, and even then, the ‘friendship’ part of their relationship is only thinly evident. We are told that Kieran is very attached to his uncle, and he certainly tries very hard to save his uncle, but we see very little of them actually engaging in an uncle-and-nephew relationship. And I don’t want to spoil what happens to Kieran’s uncle so, uh, Kieran’s uncle survives-or-dies and – we see very little of Kieran celebrating-or-mourning that (I think a page or two of celebration-or-mourning would have been enough, but we don’t even get that). Savannah never seemed to have much emotional attachment to Boyd before he was in danger, and while she puts a lot of effort into helping him when he’s in trouble, it seems to be more a matter of principle than because Boyd himself is specifically important to Savannah.
And then there is the relationship between Savannah and Kieran. Okay, I’m going to do something I almost never do, I almost can’t believing I’m doing this, but … I criticize this novel for not having enough romance. I think I would have enjoyed the novel more if the romance between Savannah and Kieran had been a lot more serious and deeper. That’s right, the blogger who wrote this and this and this is complaining that a novel – an WUXIA novel no less – does not have enough romance.
Really, the thing which I felt was missing was passionate human connections. It would have been better the novel had put in a passionate human connection via a fullblown romance between Savannah and Kieran than for it to not be there at all. Okay, I would prefer it if it were expressed in nonromantic relationships, but having it in romantic relationships is WAY BETTER than not having it at all.
In fact, I think Savannah/Kyle is a fictional romantic relationship in the worst way. It has all of the amantonormativity of a typical fictional romance (yuck) without any of the rewards of a fictional romance (or at least, none of what I find rewarding, though I think many fans of fictional romance would find it just as unsatisfying as I do).
When trying to describe wuxia to people, it’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s Chinese and has lots of martial arts.’ That’s true, and I often describe it that way myself because it’s so easy. And I like martial arts and violence in my fiction. But what keeps me hooked on wuxia is not the martial arts or that it is Chinese – it’s the psychology of the characters and the passionate, deeply involved relationships. I don’t find the fights or martial arts in Wang Dulu’s novels particularly interesting, yet he is one of my favorite wuxia novelists because of the depth of character and the intensity of the relationships. What stays with me are scenes such as Han Tiefang desperately trying to explain to dying!Lo Xiaohu that he is his son, yet Lo Xiaohu doesn’t seem to hear a word he’s saying, and still (mistakenly) talks to Chun Xueping as if she were his daughter. And then he dies. (Not coincidently, Wang Dulu wrote 言情小說 – ‘sentimental novels’ – before he started writing wuxia).
I suppose this might be another roundabout way of saying ‘The Black Trillium is too short’ because most of the conceivable ways to add the passionate human connections which I feel are missing would increase the word count. However, as I said early, there is a reason why wuxia novels tend to be really long.
I read The Black Trillium in just two days. The first 3/4 of the novel flew by. I had to push myself to finish the last fourth of the novel, but I didn’t need to push myself too hard to get to the end.
The thought of writing an wuxia novel myself has occurred to me. More specifically, the idea of setting an wuxia novel in post-industrial California has occurred to me, so far in the future that the name ‘California’ is no longer in use. I’d imagine it would have many of the things I like about 大唐雙龍傳 without the things I don’t like (apparently I’d rather daydream about being the next Huang Yi than the next Jin Yong).
I have no intention of actually writing it. Writing a novel takes a ton of time and energy, an wuxia novel set in post-industrial California even more so. I want to dedicate my time and energy to other things.
But if I ever change my mind, I think having The Black Trillium as an example of an wuxia novel written in English set in post-industrial North America will be helpful.