A review by JC Kang
Mean Girls meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…on ice!
(or I, Tonya meets Jin Yong)
As an wuxia film aficionado, and the parent of two competitive ice skaters (word of caution to those of you with young kids: ice skating is expensive!), Henry Lien’s debut middle-grade (MG) fantasy, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, intrigued me. After all, it combined both ice skating and martial arts! The original cover art, depicting a fierce young Asian girl cutting across the ice with wicked dragon skate blades, captured the grace and tenacity I hoped for in my kids. Not a reader of MG fantasy myself, I picked it up as a Christmas present for them, partly in hopes that maybe they’d want to take up martial arts, as well.
I’m sad to say, it has been collecting dust on the family bookshelf, unread.
Then, I found out it was available free on Audible Stories through September 7th, and decided to give it a try myself. And it was amazing.
And not because of the martial choreography.
That’s not to say there aren’t cool moments, such as one competitor ducking under a kick and plucking her opponent’s skate blade to make it chime. However, much like the terminology in Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes, the flowery technique names flew over my head like a wuxia movie hero’s obligatory fight in a bamboo forest. And as a bad skater parent, I’ve yet to figure out the difference between a loop and a double loop, a flip and a salchow (though I can spot a lutz and axel).
Nor was it the superlative worldbuilding.
That’s not to say it isn’t already unique with the fusion of ice skating and martial arts, performed on a secret substance called Pearl. The entire city of Pearl is constructed with it, leading to clever transportation based on skating. The world also felt lived-in, given the lush depiction of culture, and the rich history between countries clearly based on China, Taiwan, and Japan. Add in Qi powers like telepathy between twins and Dian-Mai (Dim Mak/pressure point fighting), and it’s a clever system of magic and martial arts.
Despite these compelling elements, it was the characters, emotion, and one heck of a plot that really made me love this story.
It’s told through the eyes of the titular character, Peasprout Chen. Cocky, stubborn, and ambitious, she, along with her brother Cricket, have been sent to Pearl’s Famous Academy of Skate and Sword. Ostensibly a goodwill ambassador from their home country of Shin, fourteen-year-old Peasprout comes from humble beginnings and has high hopes of becoming the greatest practitioner of Wuliu (literally, martial skating).
As one of the most talented skaters, she’s immediately drawn into a Mean Girls-style rivalry between her, the spoiled Queen Bee Suki, and the mysterious Doi. She’s also attracted to Doi’s twin brother, Hisashi, which makes for some interesting dynamics. All these characters feel fleshed-out and real though their interactions with Peasprout. The conflict between the three girls peals away another layer of what turns out to be a complex plot: The Empress Dowager of Shin covets the secret of the Pearl (the substance), and is holding two celebrated Wuliu practitioners from Pearl (the city) hostage. In her desire to undermine Peasprout, Suki accuses her of being a spy. When the academy’s various structures start to fall under attack, more accusing eyes fall on her. This leads to one amazing plot twist, seeded from the beginning, which makes Lien’s work all the more impressive.
That plot twist stirred all kinds of feels for me; and really, where The Future Legend of Skate and Sword really shines is the raw emotion it evokes. It’s a rollercoaster worthy of the Pearl-made rails connecting the islands of Pearl City, one which ultimately transforms Peasprout from a character who could be unlikeable for the first three-quarters of the story into a different person than how she started.
With this in mind, I give the Peasprout Chen 239.57 points—about the same as Evgenia Medevedeva’s questionable second place finish at the 2018 Winter Olympics…or, the equivalent of 9 stars out of 10 in Fantasy-Faction’s rating system.
Reviewer’s Note: I listened to Peasprout Chen on Audible. Nancy Wu does an incredible job of narrating!
*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction and was republished here with the reviewer’s permission