Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for letting me read an e-ARC of The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu.
Based on the concept “What if the prophecy was wrong?”, The Art of Prophecy takes place on a constantly evolving political and physical landscape. The five Zhuun duchies live lives familiar to many readers, settled in communities on solid soil, while their technology is relatively simplistic their war arts and related skills are highly developed. Their enemies, the Katuia, are nomadic peoples who seem to be based on the Mongols. They periodically raid the Zhuun and live on multiple steampunk cities that roam the harsh ecosystem of the Grass Sea, a large piece of land with a thick layer of water running under it that causes ponds and lakes to spontaneously emerge and disappear as well as the development of quicksand and the sheltering of many unseen but ruthless beasts. The Katuia are led by the Eternal Khan which Prophecy says only Wen Jian, the Hero of the Five Under Heaven, can defeat. The Five Duchies rely on him to both kill the Khan and unite them under one cause. Except, the prophecy seems to be wrong and now Jian is a snotty fourteen-year-old loose end for many powerful people.
Our not-so-heroic hero, Wen Jian, reminds me of a young Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender but if he had lived an over-privileged life and only just met Iroh before being banished. And if Iroh were a disabled woman and veteran who doesn’t particularly like Zuko most days. The other characters include a snarky young woman who has a complex relationship with her father, a now-disgraced war hero that is trying to balance breaking every rule of her religion with saving her people, and a queer leader of a group of assassins who really talks too much. I loved getting to know most of these characters (there were one or two I didn’t like), they were so natural and human in their mistakes and growth. If these sound like characters you would be interested in, I definitely recommend checking out this book. The plot is incredibly character driven with no specific end goal to pursue. The journey itself is the focus so don’t start this book expecting to race to the end. Chu slowly draws all the pieces on the board towards each other, developing their motives until they meet in a clash at the end that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The worldbuilding in The Art of Prophecy is beautiful, it features multiple complex cultures that the author has put the time into developing and making sure that readers understand them. It would have been easy to vilify one culture and hold up the other, but Chu gives both cultures the space to be imperfect the point that neither is truly the enemy. They are all just people. Chu provides enough character perspectives on both sides of the conflict so that neither culture or group is unnecessarily demonized. I was concerned about this when I first saw that one of the cultures included was based on the Mongols because media has a history of painting nomadic cultures as “savage” or “barbaric”. This is thankfully not the case in The Art of Prophecy. The magic in their world is utilized or directed through martial arts and the manipulation of one’s “jing”. It was a fascinating system to learn about. We get to see how this method encourages the development of a variety of schools of thought early in the book.
I found the writing style and word choice to just add to the immersion, except for one specific moment when a character refers to another as a ”Golem”. I understand that we are supposedly reading a fantasy language or a translated version of one but to be reading in English and to have a medieval East Asian-inspired character use a very culturally specific Yiddish word was incredibly jarring and I don’t see why it was necessary in the first place.
The Art of Prophecy examines complex topics the role of religion in politics and the use of people as pawns to prop up both systems while keeping things from getting too heavy with entertaining and immersive martial art fights. Overall, I would give it 3.75 stars, I really enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to seeing what the sequel holds.