The Bird and the Blade
by Megan Bannen
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: June 5, 2018
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom … until she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father as they flee from their enemies across the vast Mongol Empire. On the run, with adversaries on all sides and an endless journey ahead, Jinghua hatches a scheme to use the Kipchaks’ exile to return home, a plan that becomes increasingly fraught as her feelings for Khalaf evolve into a hopeless love.Jinghua’s already dicey prospects take a downward turn when Khalaf seeks to restore his kingdom by forging a marriage alliance with Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. As beautiful as she is cunning, Turandokht requires all potential suitors to solve three impossible riddles to win her hand—and if they fail, they die.
Jinghua has kept her own counsel well, but with Khalaf’s kingdom—and his very life—on the line, she must reconcile the hard truth of her past with her love for a boy who has no idea what she’s capable of … even if it means losing him to the girl who’d sooner take his life than his heart.
Strong heroes and heroines
What Heroism Is (and Isn’t)
When I was a kid, I tore through the Chronicles of Narnia, three times in a row. But even though I loved those books with all my heart, and even though I desperately wanted to step into a wardrobe and leave this world behind, the overt sexism of that series rankled me even then. For example, Peter and Edmund get to take up arms in the big battle at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, while Lucy and Susan are shunted off to the side. At the time, I remember thinking, “Well, I would have grabbed a sword and fought!” Being a girl wouldn’t have stopped me.
Now? I’m not so sure.
The discourse surrounding YA lit these days has an awful lot to say about “strong girls” and “kickass female characters,” and I find myself bristling at those terms. The implication of the words “strong girls” is that most girls are not strong, that being strong is inherently male but not inherently female. The implication of a term like “kickass female character” is that only girls who fight—in other words, girls who behave in a way we code as male—have merit.
Can someone please explain to me why kicking ass is a good thing? No, really. Look around you. Look at the world and all the war and bloodshed it contains. Consider what “kicking ass” actually means. Kicking ass hurts people. Kicking ass is a means of solving your problems by blaming others. Kicking ass, in fact, sucks, and it’s a terrible way to resolve conflict.
So let’s think, for a moment, about characters who are strong precisely because they behave in ways we typically code as female. Harry Potter may be the protagonist of his eponymous series, for example, but to my mind, that series has two heroes, and they’re both female: Hermione Granger and Harry’s mother.
Harry would have been toast three books in if Hermione weren’t there to save him time and again. She solves problems through knowledge and learning. She arms herself with books and information. She sidesteps conflict by ignoring people she knows she can’t change. And in that last book, she’s the picture of resilience and perseverance while Harry and Ron fall to pieces. She’s always thinking, always planning ahead, always there for her friends, even when it comes with great personal sacrifice. That is what true heroism looks like.
That said, it’s Harry’s mom who is the great hero of the series. I would argue that the overarching theme of the Harry Potter books centers on the power of a mother’s love, a strength that is born out of great self-sacrifice. When Lily Potter dies protecting her child—a sacrifice she willingly makes—she leaves her son with a shield of protection even the greatest evil can’t penetrate. And at the end of the day (spoiler alert) when Harry faces certain death, it’s his mother who is by his side to the last, giving him the strength to do the hard thing that must be done: his own self-sacrifice.
As a matter of fact, if you want to find a great hero in the world, look to your mother. The odds are extremely good that she has sacrificed her own wants and, in many cases, her own needs so that you could grow and thrive. She has gone without so that you could have. She has worn herself out so that you had clothes on your back and a roof over your head and food in your stomach. And she did it all without any recognition, as if that sort of sacrifice were easy.
I started writing The Bird and the Blade when my own kids were two and four, respectively, and I suspect that is why the heroism of the book is defined by self-sacrifice. At the time, it felt like my sense of self was being erased by motherhood, that I was bending over backwards to make sure everyone else had what they needed, while my own wants and needs mattered to no one. There’s an invisibility that comes with doing what women are expected to do, as if food appears by magic and laundry happens of its own volition. A woman often lives at the mercy of others’ needs twenty-four hours and day, seven days a week, and no one even notices.
Through Jinghua, the protagonist of The Bird and the Blade, I wanted to capture that female heroism that all too often goes uncelebrated. Jinghua does the hard thing, day in and day out, even when no one realizes she’s doing it. In the end, she doesn’t solve her problems by hurting someone else; instead, she sacrifices what she most wants in the world.
That, my friends, is heroic. (And hopefully not too spoiler-y.)
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