I read volume one of the Legends of the Condor Heroes, A Hero Born, a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the story of young Guo Jing, who proves himself a virtuous, if not always wise, warrior in Song dynasty China (1200AD). He features again in A Snake Lies in Waiting but each story is encapsulated within one volume so it was easy picking up the thread without having read the linking volume, A Bond Undone. This series has captivated Chinese audiences since it first saw the light of day in the 1950s but English-speaking readers have had to wait much longer for the privilege of reading this fantasy adventure. Fans of Kung Fu, martial arts and Chinese legend, as portrayed in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon not Enter the Dragon, will love A Snake Lies in Waiting. With one proviso, this is not a movie, it is packed with action but some of the subtlety of the story is in the telling; the humour, word play and the revelation of motive.

The good news is that this kind of Chinese fantasy/legend doesn’t age, it’s as fascinating and wacky as it ever was. It’s founding in Chinese culture is as strong as the legend of Arthur is in our culture and champions similar virtues; chivalric honour and romance with added Kung Fu. This fresh translation, which is the result of painstaking research by Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang, honours the original but has a little modern pep to it for the twenty-first century reader.

The pace is relentless, the scenes are epic and the fights can last for chapters, involving all manner of invention and deviousness and creatures. There is never a dull moment. Nevertheless, some of the things Chinese readers will take for granted, or at least be aware of, will be puzzling to English language readers, there are helpful notes at the end to explain some of the more opaque Chinese characteristics and sources.

This is the story of Guo Jing and his betrothed Lotus, daughter of Huang, known as the black apothecary (he’s not happy that Guo won the right to her hand). Guo Jing is travelling to Peach Blossom Island with the chief of the Northern Beggars, Count Seven Hong, one of the five greats, master to Guo Jing, and Zhou Botong, the Hoary Urchin. They are aboard ship, resting in their cabin when they realise the water is coming into the room. It’s already washed over the deck, they climb the mast for safety as the vessel breaks up. They have been tricked by heretic Huang, the black apothecary, the ship was unseaworthy. They are still leagues from Peach Blossom Island where Guo Jing hopes to be reunited with Lotus. While they face the prospect of dying at sea, no food or water (their expertise in martial arts aren’t much help now), the more immediate danger is sharks, big sharks, lots of them. Using wooden sticks splintered from the mast they battle, killing shark after shark, which are then devoured by their hungry shiver. As each attack is repelled there are more sharks, soon the odds will overwhelm them. Then they see a boat, the Venom of the West, Viper Ouyang, at the helm, beside him his nephew, Gallant. Guo, Count Seven and Zhuo insist on acknowledging that they did not ask for help but they are, in truth, only too happy to accept it, if only it came in the from of someone else. Zhuo Botong bets Viper that he cannot rid the sea of the sharks, in forfeit the loser will do the winner’s bidding or jump into the sea and be left to die. Viper unwinds two snakes from his staff, drains their poison into a cup and catching a shark feeds it the venom before returning it to the water where it dies and is devoured by the shiver. Before long the sea can’t be seen for the floating corpses of the sharks. While Count Seven and Guo Jing are being looked after by maidens Viper claims his victory prize from Zhuo. He wants the secrets of the Nine Yin Manual, the old man refuses and jumps into the sea. Viper turns to Guo, one of the only two people to know the secrets of the Nine Yin Manual, he will get it from him and then kill him. He thinks he has already poisoned Count Seven and Guo Jing in their food but Count Seven was wise to this ploy, he and Guo did not eat. With Viper’s leverage gone a fight ensues.

“Unfortunately, bad luck rarely comes but once, and at that moment the boat lurched to one side, causing the heavy metal chain of its anchor to hurtle towards him.” [Viper Ouyang]

Mid battle, Lotus arrives to save her fiancée but now she too is in danger too, Viper is a formidable and deadly opponent. And so begins the adventures of Guo Jing and Lotus. On sea and on land the trials keep coming.

My to forget the romance:

“Guo Jing obeyed . . . Her heart was bursting with love. She bent down and kissed the nape of his neck. She recalled the way Guo Jing had watched her use her new Dog-Beating kung fu against viper Ouyang the previous day and how he had praised her.”

Lotus is the most interesting character, smarter than Guo by a distance, she is full of ironic wit and sharp words. But let’s be honest it’s the action that propels the story. This is just a lot of fun.

Paul Burke 4/3

A Snake Lies Waiting by Jin Yong
MacLehose Press 9780857054623 pbk Jan 2020