After pulp fiction died out in the United States, other countries continued the tradition of publishing cheap and entertaining stories of adventure. In France, the pulp spirit contributed to bande dessinée comics such as Valerian and Laureline. Japan married the manga art style to pulp adventures aimed at adolescents and created the light novel. In China, pulp-style adventures became YY (Yi Yin) novels, or “enjoyment”1 novels, science fiction and fantasy adventures serialized online -and often updated daily- for the sheer ecstatic release that comes from reading an entertaining adventure. Among the first YY novels to make the leap from Chinese websites into English-speaking bookstores is Martial God Asura, by Kindhearted Bee, a magic and martial arts fantasy of the new xuanhuan genre, bearing significant influences from wuxia martial arts stories.
Chinese movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero introduced the warrior world of wuxia (literally “martial heroes”) to Western audiences. In this literary version of a China that never was, chivalrous heroes live as noblebright outlaws, fighting against evil and corruption with almost supernatural fighting abilities honed through years of practice, discipline, and cultivating one’s internal qi energy. In recent years, Chinese writers have added Taoist alchemical magic to the wuxia martial artist’s skills, creating a high fantasy genre known as xianxia (literally “immortal heroes”), where demihumans battle ghosts and mythical monsters as they search for immortality. If the Taoist elements are removed and other mythological and even foreign influences are cultivated, the result is xuanhuan, or “mysterious fantasy.” In all three, a hero moves from rank to rank as his skill, expertise, and energy levels are cultivated into more potent forms, similar to how an RPG character may level up. Superficially, this emphasis on strict levels can make a xianxia or xuanhuan novel resemble one from the litRPG genre. (Another counterpart to xuanhuan fantasy can be found in Japanese seinen young adult fantasies such as The Familiar of Zero, Aesthetica of a Rogue Hero, and Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, although those tend to take their fantasy elements from Dungeons & Dragons and other Western sources instead of Chinese myths.) But whether through martial arts, Taoist alchemy, or energy manipulation, the fantasy world requires that a hero rise from a humble station through the ranks and beyond.
In Martial God Asura, his name is Chu Feng.
An adopted son and a prodigy energy cultivator who fizzled out as he grew up, Chu Feng has seen the boot from his clan far more often than the place of honor. Try as he might, he cannot cultivate enough energy to graduate from being an initiate at the local martial arts school. Only his cousin, the sweet-hearted Chu Yue, feels any sympathy for him. She gives him her dose of a potent spiritual medicine in the hopes of boosting Chu Feng’s energy enough to reach the next level. Instead, the dose unlocks the Divine Lightnings sealed inside Chu Feng, and his skills, energy, and renown grow exponentially. First he wins his clan’s esteem, then a place in the school’s shifting alliances, and then a spot in the inner circle, smashing his way through those who would be so arrogant to deny him his due. But to fuel his explosive cultivation of energy, he must eat more and more doses of increasingly more potent spiritual medicines. To find the needed doses, he searches mountains and even the tombs of dead cultivation masters, where he also finds new techniques which require even greater energy and medicines to master.
Chu Feng is a bit of a monster. Not just in his unprecedented growth in energy cultivation and martial skill, but in his willingness to match affront with affront and violence with violence. Each adventure rewards him with the resources needed to cultivate the power that will see him through the next, so he has no failures to teach him finesse. Each fight is a curbstomp and each new fight requires stronger enemies for Chu Feng to curbstomp. The power levels start creeping skyward immediately, and by the end of the first volume, it becomes a rocket ride to the stars. Some will find Chu Feng’s smashing of every obstacle before him to be enjoyable; min/max power gaming exists for a reason. And in the beginning, when Chu Feng is winning the respect denied him, it is.
The problem, however, is that Chu Feng never matures. It isn’t uncommon in films such as The Master, Tai Chi Zero, or Mad Monkey Kung Fu for the hero to be an insufferable brat in need of maturity, responsibility, and a good thrashing. With the right mentor, the burdens of responsibility, and growth in the martial arts, usually involving at least one beating, the hero grows up and takes his place in society, losing his goofy childishness in the process. Chu Feng never meets the man who can knock some sense into him, so he never loses that unbridled arrogance that leads him into more fights that he could have avoided. The fights, a mix of technique vs. technique and spiritual energy pressure vs. spiritual energy pressure, can be at times abstract, but brutal in their conclusion. This arrogance and ruthlessness is common to many xianxia and xuanhuan lone wolves, though, without the kindnesses exhibited by seinen fantasy heroes towards their supporting casts. Martial God Asura will follow Chu Feng from his days as an arrogant youth into adulthood, but it will take about a thousand chapters to get there, and twice that to near middle age.
Instead of a classic Western dramatic narrative, complete with inciting actions and climaxes, Martial God Asura follows a classic Chinese approach, introducing developments and exploring the consequences and implications of each development before moving onto the next. Better known to the West by its Japanese name, kishotenketsu, this cycle of developments, twists, and consequences allows is easily adapted to serialization, as a new development can always be added at the end of the exploration of the previous one. Kishotenketsu can be used to set up stories without conflict which is an alien concept to many Western readers. However, there are plenty of fights to hold the attention of an action fan. It’s a form that Kindhearted Bee has used for over 2976 chapters as of the time of writing, with a new 2000 word chapter appearing every day. Over 1600 have been translated into English, with the first 91 appearing in this volume.
Flowerbridgetoo provides a competent, if sometimes repetitive, translation, seldom struggling to render the abstract concepts of the internal martial arts and cultivation into simple English. The untranslated jargon common to translations of Japanese light novels are completely absent here, and it’s reassuring to see the Chinese fantasy enthusiasts striving towards professional translation standards. Yet Martial God Asura expects that the reader is familiar with the conventions of xianxia and xuanhuan, so explanations for the various terms are few. (Those interested in the tropes of qi energy cultivation in Chinese fantasy should first check out this glossary.) Only the occasional typo mars the English translation, and these are of the type that spellcheck programs would miss, such as “words” for “swords” and “Diving Beast” for “Divine Beast.”
Martial God Asura might run heavy with wish indulgence, but it serves as one of the most engaging introductions into current Chinese fantasy genres and tropes. It may be imperfect, but it sets out to entertain and hits that mark far more than it misses.
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1. The actual meaning of Yi Yin is earthier than the one I give here.