[TW: deadnaming and misgendering]
When the Chinese empire is under the threat of the cunning Leopard and his merciless men, every man and boy able to contribute to the protection of the realm are called into duty. Zhilan’s father Hua Zhou, also known as the Wild Tiger, is a retired man with a bad leg, who was severely injured during his time serving as an high ranked officer. Still, the army calls him once more. Zhilan’s mum and younger siblings are devastated, and Zhilan is fearing for both of her parents lives. In a bold move, she uses her very special gifts to transform herself into Hua Zhi, the Wild Tiger’s oldest boy, now ready to fight in his fathers place. From that on, the story is rapidly spinning into a carousel of lies and deception, but also that of a new understanding of oneself and others. And when the war is over, it’s not that sure that Zhilan will ever return.
I’m a cis-woman, and I can only take on this book from my own, sometimes very narrow, experiences and understandings of gender. With that disclaimer put out there, I do feel like this is a very sensitive depiction about the fluidity of gender identity, rolls and norms; a story that tries to explore different perspective on sex and the perception of belonging, rather than trying to explain or “own” a certain point of view. It’s also a very emotional journey, that makes me relate to and feel for Hua Zhi in a way that I normally wouldn’t with a typical soldier and hero figure in this kind of tale.
The Hand, the Eye and the Heart is a retelling of the legend behind Mulan but, as described above, with a hundred more layers, dimensions and complications. The war, that has to be said to be at least one of the novel’s main conflicts, isn’t action-packed or filled with the kind of one-liners that usually makes me page forward until the word “sword” isn’t appearing twenty times in every sentence. It’s still a thrilling and exciting story, but the focus on identity and relationships makes it deeper and more low-key than other fantasy retellings of the like. However, it took me a long time to get through the book. It’s still a bit too epic for my taste, and even though it’s interesting and thought provoking, it’s not brilliant or especially outstanding.
Dr. Bea approves