In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.
But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?
With this summary, Kit Sun Cheah (an alias of Castalia House author Kai Wai Cheah) introduced Invincible, his serialized novella that won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future contest. Through its seven chapters, he brings the fantasy genre of xianxia to English-speaking audiences, mixing generous portions of pulp action and military fantasy into the Chinese setting.
Most xianxia fantasies feature magicians who cultivate their internal energy to perform a dazzling array of magical and martial feats as they ascend a near infinite ladder of power levels, most far beyond the reaches of mere mortal cultivators. The primary drive for these characters is to gain more power, through such means as making contracts with magical beings, raiding treasure houses, or clashing with bandits and rivals. This leads to proud and selfish protagonists taking what they want because no one can stop them. Invincible‘s Zhang uses some of the same techniques, as he draws on the purifying methods of cultivation to remove fatigue, enjoys the blessings of his contract with the celestial phoenix Hong Er, and has earned his reputation as a skilled magical warrior on the battlefield. But Cheah upends the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies of xianxia by placing Zhang under military discipline. Duty, not power, becomes the driving force for Zhang, who must fulfill the duties to his country, his regiment, and his celestial partner as he pursues monsters and men who might as well be monsters. For each duty may grant privileges, but also demand obligations in turn. And, as Zhang finds out, sometimes these obligations conflict with each other.
The effects of Zhang’s military service further season the story. Many xianxia stories exist in an underground separate from normal society, and while the protagonists my hold rank in this underground, they behave as princes and not military officers under authority. Zhang leads troops, yet is still subordinate to his commanders. Refreshingly for a depiction of military service, the familiar fault of insubordination fails to raise its ugly head. He also is forced by his duties to interact with more than just the underground. In addition to the skills of a cultivator, Zhang also relies on all the tools of a soldier, including low crawling, crossbows, and leading men in formations, instead of more direct and superheroic confrontations. And when learning the difference between various yaomo monsters and the names of various offices, the universality of the military experience grounds the reader in something familiar while he explores the exotic.
Set against Zhang is the bandit lord Han, who is fomenting rebellion and unrest by settling yaomo inside the Empire’s frontier. Taking Zhang’s presence in the frontier as a personal challenge, Han is shrewd and wily, using an indirect approach:
“Whenever a martial artist challenges a rival school, the teacher would send the weakest student to battle him. If the student loses, he sends the next best, and so on, until either the challenger is defeated or the teacher runs out of students. In every bout, the teacher studies the challenger, identifying his strengths and weaknesses. Should he ever have to fight the challenger, he would know how to deal with him.
It also builds the anticipation for the inevitable clash between the rebel lord and the soldier. Han now knows Zhang’s fighting style. How will Zhang react to Han’s surprises, adapt, and overcome? Instead of playing the power escalation game, this final battle is instead a chess match, as much of a battle of wits as a battle of magic and fists.
The extensive Chinese setting might be too unfamiliar for some readers, but Invincible is rewarding to those who press past this. Zhang is a model hero, while the celestial phoenix Hong Er endearingly acts as his conscience and moral teacher. Answers to the questions raised by new terms, monsters, and ideas come steadily, but from context instead of paragraphs of exposition. This method draws a reader in slowly, but there’s admittedly a steep learning curve up front. Fortunately, Cheah’s approach minimizes the xianxia genre jargon that a newcomer needs to learn. (All genres have such, especially American science fiction. Do you grok what an ansible is? Or does Treknobabble make you gafiate?) In the mean time, explanations for unfamiliar Chinese terms are only a right click away.
Invincible serves as an excellent and accessible introduction to the genre of xianxia, delivering on the action with generous helpings of the exotic, mortal peril, and moral peril. Zhang is a worthy addition to the pantheon of heroes, of both xianxia and the pulp tradition, and I hope we will see more of his adventures in the service of the Shenwujun.
As of this writing, the seventh and most recent part of Invincible can be found on Steemit, PulpRev.com, and Cheah’s blog while the easiest way to find all the parts is at PulpRev.com. The complete version of the story will be published as an ebook soon.
For those interested in learning more about the conventions of Chinese fantasy, I recommend this glossary of Chinese fantasy terms.