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The Art of Destiny coverWesley Chu’s newest fantasy series specifically examines the impact of legend and military tradition on the lives of the protagonist, a prophesied hero, and the mentors he encounters along the way. The initial book in the series, The Art of Prophecy (2022), introduced Jian, literally designated Hero of the Tiandi, as well as his master Taishi, and shared their quest to fulfill Jian’s destiny: to defeat the Immortal Khan. In this sequel, Jian’s further training, and the ramifications of his actions, ripple and change the world’s social landscape: a widespread knowledge of the prophecy involving Jian drives the actions of whole communities. If there is a more mystical context here, then Jian and Taishi do not know how it will work. Instead, the world around the hero, not the hero himself, binds itself to the whims of the prophecy. Jian’s prophecy relies on the widespread practice of war arts—complex systems of fighting moves—to bring along with it the virtues and context to cultivate his legend.

The characters almost seem to know they exist in a fantasy series, but actually have created an intricate system around the idea of the prophecy that allows them to believably subscribe to a narrative legend. Jian trains in the Windwhispering School of war arts with its grandmaster, Taishi. The Windwhispering School lives up to the aerial style and fantastic imagery invoked by its name, but does so only against the greater backdrop of the even richer legends of the Tiandi people. Colleagues of Taishi, other masters, bear lofty titles such as “God of gamblers” and “Psy Horselord.” The Tiandi communities around Jian are able to build their destiny because the war arts schools allow them to focus on the prophecy. Jian’s small family-like circle of fellow students, for instance, exists only to help him train and become the heroic “war artist” necessary to defeat the Khan. For his part, Jian, perhaps because he has been known as a Hero since childhood, has a flighty and indecisive disposition, but uses his study of the war arts to give his life meaning. However, war arts have a universal appeal, not only for heroic figures like Taishi, but also for the Immortal Khan’s supporters and mercenary assassins hired by nobility. Each group purposefully acts to function within the bounds of prophecy, using war arts as a way to reach their goals.

In this context, the attitudes of relatively small players and their concrete personal struggles contrast with the ramifications of those with grander stakes. As an instructor to the hero on which the prophecy focuses, Taishi has perhaps the greatest stake in the grand drama short of the Khan himself. Taishi finds herself acting at times as a parent in addition to a soldier. She must often save Jian from his own teenage impulses and trusting nature. While they initially met as a teacher and student, Taishi has taken Jian and a number of other students into exile in order to shield them from fanatics who want to kill them. This heightened responsibility motivates Taishi to become a much more active protagonist than Jian. She acts as a natural leader to the coalition of his allies. She has more skill as a war artist and escorts him through battlefields. Indeed, the prophecy ironically gives her greater purpose than it does Jian. Where Jian has been preordained to defeat the Khan, Taishi’s fate remains undefined by prophecy, and is shaped rather by necessity. Because of her beliefs, Jian must succeed, and therefore she must be successful in her efforts, all while retaining the confidence to push him toward maturity and the inevitable fight with his adversary. In this way, Taishi wields an adaptability rooted in trust that ensures she actively drives the narrative. She uses the community built by the prophecy to construct a stable and nurturing environment, an excellent example of how belief can create a tradition of strong individuals.

Their nemesis, the Immortal Khan, has a cult dedicated to him that abuses the benefits of tradition. His prophecy has the greatest impact among the Katuia, where pieces of his soul infect individuals with chronic illness after his death, until the victims die and he can be reincarnated. One such victim, a warrior named Salminde the Viperstrike, becomes infected and, rather than sacrifice herself as tradition dictates, she looks for a cure in order to live out her life with her family. While she and Taishi may each act as protectors and leaders of their communities, Sali’s threat comes literally from within, not externally. And though Sali exhibits a willingness to die in battle for her loved ones, she ultimately realizes they need her leadership more than anything. She visits a shaman who heals her, but her battle with the Immortal Khan’s soul-rot needs deep historical context to cure it: Sali discovers that the Immortal Khan once had good intentions but was corrupted by power into becoming a warlord. She also comes to realize that many of her own former comrades used tradition as a cover for malignant actions, such as unending warfare and the literal sickness that consumes Sali herself. Her conflict with the Immortal Khan’s soul in this way presents a toxic tradition in counterpoint to the stability that the prophecy provides for Taishi.

A third, and most disruptive, strand of plot focuses on a more neutral, commercially driven tradition. It examines Qisami the Shadowkill’s struggle to regain her professional reputation. Shadowkills have a war arts style that allows them to move into shadow, a technique which they are trained in as children in a group home, so that they can efficiently act as spies and assassins in adulthood. Qisami has the most fun character arc in the novel, because, while the wider plot can easily be predicted, Qisami alone seems to avoid any knowledge of what will happen to her. Her upbringing as a Shadowkill created a pessimistic and arrogant personality, and she has so much hubris that she fails to see her own subordinates’ betrayal. Qisami had been hired to infiltrate a noble household as a nanny. The children came to love her, so Qisami refused the task when a rival noblewoman, Sunri, attempted to hire her to arrange their deaths. After the whole family is murdered in close proximity to where she and a squad of her fellow Shadowkills are living, Qisami does not even suspect her close friends until they reveal themselves as the killers. For Qisami, this represented the crumbling of two communities: her coworkers, from whom she assumed loyalty; and the cover family within which she had begun to feel like a member. For Qisami, tradition has taken away real fulfillment in cruel, poignant ways.

The personal and the traditional also conflict in another story strand. Like Qisami, Sunri, the Duchess of Caobiu, began life as a Shadowkill, but later became the Emperor’s concubine, then wife, and lastly a duchess after her husband’s death. She now leads one of the main noble houses among the Tiandi. Sunri’s lifetime has been an ambitious struggle against the social traditions of the Tiandi in order to gain power, wealth, and status. Her ambitions lead to social unrest and infighting among the Tiandi nobles, so they cannot unite against the Immortal Khan—which puts Jian and his prophecy in danger. However, when Sunri directly attempts to stop Jian from escaping to safety during a skirmish caused by her own actions, Taishi engages her in a duel. This duel presents the climax between the novel’s war arts systems in an elegant, thrilling action sequence. As a wise old master, Taishi easily recognizes the varied war arts specific to every walk of life that Sunri has lived thus far, as Sunri throws attack after attack at the unfazed master. In the end, Taishi’s experience in balancing traditions proves too much and Sunri flees. Taishi’s victory represents mastery of the balance of the war arts traditions, as presented in a literal struggle.

War arts lie at the center of this universe, then, and provide a scaffolding for the lives of the characters, as an efficient way to express the conflicts that arise between individuals and tradition. The idea of a life as part of a larger narrative comes baked in, not only for Jian, who is named as the Hero of the Prophecy, but also for the larger religious community, and society, that hopes for the prophecy’s fulfillment. This notion provides direction and confidence for Jian, even as it presents greater challenges and adventure for supporting figures like Taishi. But it offers a kind of family for both. By contrast, greed and ambition prove to be the great rivals of tradition, displayed in an exciting, stylish sword battle between the antagonist and the mentor. But the prophesied Chosen One remains in reserve. Ultimately, this confrontation caps the middle entry in a fantasy with a well-earned cliffhanger to set up the finale of a series that so far has been made spectacular by visual motifs.

Aaron Heil lives with his wife in Emporia, Kansas, where he is an MLS candidate at Emporia State’s School of Library and Information Management. His prose has also appeared in the Cleveland Review of Books, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. He regularly blogs for The Game of Nerds.
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