[Book Review] Nirvana in Fire/琅琊榜

Just a note, Nirvana in Fire is the title for the television drama adaptation, this is actually going to be the review about the novel itself, which had not been given a English name. For the sake of this review, I will be using it to address the original novel itself simply because it has an amazing ring to it. Not many Chinese titles have the same privilege of having great English names. 

And yes, it is in Chinese. I will be doing some reviews of chinese novels in the near future, with a huge emphasis on Louis Cha’s wuxia (martial hero) series. I have them in my head for a long, long time, it is time I let them out in text for once. 

The original author goes by the pseudonym Haiyan (which literally means ‘banquet on the sea’). Nirvana in Fire belongs to the genre of alternative history, with its setting rooted in medieval China in the Liang Dynasty (somewhere in the 4th Century) which happens to be one of the lesser known eras in popular culture. It also has quite some martial arts and mystery elements embedded within the plot.

To give a context, the story is often known as the Chinese version of Count of Monte Cristo (which I have not read myself 😡 ). The major plot element unique to the story is the existence of the Langya Pavilion, a organization of sages and scholars which has answers to every single question in existence. In modern terms, it is basically Google with payment. The Langya Pavilion is also famed for their ranking system, where they create Top 10 lists for categories such as scholars, beauties, and martial artists, and update it annually. While this particular Pavilion seems extremely fascinating, unfortunately it felt extremely underutilized, especially if the Chinese title is literally named after their rankings. It had been a consistently element throughout the story, but is only used to describe the extents of the ranked’s abilities. They were really quite underutilized as an intelligence organization and a plot element to progress through the sotry.

Instead, the story revolves around Mei Changsu, a scholar and strategist, well known for leading the Jiangzuo League, the most powerful martial clan of that time, without any martial art prowess of his own (although he is extremely educated about them). The Pavilion describes Mei Changsu as the “Talent of the Kirin”, capable of bringing the one he serves to reign over the world (in that context, Liang Dynasty and the other surrounding states). Mei makes friends with Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin, both from noble families (Xiao is part of the royal family), while they are having their adventures in the martial artists’ society, and was invited by them to the Capital, along with his autistic but extremely powerful bodyguard, Fei Liu. While in the Capital, Mei takes on the alias of Su Zhe.

Secretly, Mei holds another identity that would shake the nation if revealed: Lin Shu, son of the late Grand Marshal of the Crimson Flame Legion. Lin Shu was one of the few who survived a betrayal of an allied force, where almost the entire army was slain and charged under the name of treason (due to political drama back in the palace, what a surprise!). Lin Shu was saved by the young master of the Pavilion, and nursed to basic functioning with a severely weakened body, but no longer able to practice martial arts due to the purging of a severe poison and had his appearance entirely changed. Now, his agenda is to bring light to that tragedy to clear his family and legion’s name through joining the political fight to the throne by working for his childhood friend and prince, Xiao Jingyan, to upset two other princes through a series of deception and strategies.

Eventually, Mei finally achieved his goal but was left with a great dilemma. The surrounding states simultaneously launched surprise attacks on the border and the existing Liang generals were too old and untrained to fend them off. At his life’s final stage as his medical condition worsened, Mei decided that his mission as Mei Changsu was over, and wanted to live as Lin Shu for the rest of his short life: he took up the initiative to lead Liang’s army as their Marshal in his final three months. Eventually the threat was defeated, and a new army was named after him, the Chang Lin Legion.

One age of tales ends, another begins.

“Look, the wind is rising.” 

“No, my dear. Within the palace’s walls, the wind has never stopped.”

I would recommend this to anyone who could read Chinese, and at least recommend the television drama to anyone who would enjoy medieval Chinese themes. Nirvana in Fire had a very original plot, no bullshit deus ex machina minus Mei’s extreme intellect, and have a good presentation of the clash of wits in politics. I could not go deep into this analysis, but as a whole book I would rate it 7/10. Writing and storytelling was close to impeccable, with very clear character development across most major roles. Characters have distinct depths, and are extremely unique with their backgrounds described in detail. Downsides? It isn’t exactly a martial art novel, so those looking for Louis Cha-like action and setting will not find what they want. Secondly, once again, the Pavilion could have been involved more.

And, if I really had to nitpick, it is not a series. The writing styles, plot elements, and characters have so much potential to produce at least a sequel or generate an entire trilogy.

In short, Nirvana in Fire is about history, politics and mystery, with some bits of martial art.

This is my first try at reviewing a Chinese book in English and it felt awkward as hell, and everything was out of place. I am contemplating if I want to do such reviews in the same way again. 

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