Book Review: The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The War Arts Saga
Publisher: Del Rey (August 9, 2022)
Length: 544 pages
I have been reading Wesley Chu’s work for a long time and if I’m not mistaken, I believe The Art of Prophecy might be his first foray into the epic fantasy genre. This first book of his new series The War Arts Saga is a lushly written story of intrigue, adventure and action set in a world that’s not only inspired by rich histories and theologies of Asian cultures but also the martial-chivalric traditions of the Wuxia genre. There’s no doubt this novel is much bigger, deeper, and very different in style and scope to the author’s previous works, but fans will be happy to know his writing is as witty and entertaining as ever.
It also might not surprise anyone to learn that one of the main themes of The Art of Prophecy is…well, prophecy. According to the book’s lore, many centuries ago it was foretold that a child will be born whose destiny is to defeat the Eternal Khan, the immortal god-king of the Katuia Hordes. When the story opens, this chosen one has been identified as Wen Jian, now a teenager studying at the palace under the tutelage of many masters who have been training him in martial arts since he was small boy. Somewhere along the way though, it appears that both the student and his teachers have become blinded by the pomp of prophecy, losing sight of their purpose. Thus, when the celebrated war master Ling Taishi arrives to evaluate Jian, rather than the great warrior everyone expected, she instead finds a pampered young man who has never been tried in a real battle.
Disgusted, Taishi decides to take the boy on as her apprentice, determined to transform him into the hero that the prophecy promised. Having been doted on and spoiled his entire life, Jian initially rebels against her harsh training, but then the two of them eventually reach a point of mutual respect—just in time to receive the news that the Eternal Khan has died. In a single moment, Jian’s entire world is turned upside down. For if the nemesis that he was fated to kill is already dead, then where does that leave him? Sensing that the boy will be in great danger now that the entire prophecy has crumbled around him, Taishi escapes the palace with Jian and takes him to a warrior arts school, where she plans to hide him until the danger has passed.
But as it turns out, Jian has more to fear than death at the hands of his own people. Out in the Grass Sea, Sali of the Katuia has taken on an important quest now that the khan and her dear friend whom she had pledged her life to is now gone. And then there’s the mysterious Qisami, a ruthless bounty hunter and assassin who has been tasked to kill Jian.
Hands down, what I loved most about The Art of Prophecy was the way it turned a well-known fantasy trope on its head. What happens when the chosen turns out not to be the chosen one after all? While the first part of the novel played out like your typical master and apprentice scenario with Taishi taking on the role of wise teacher and Jian the part of the reluctant student, the plot was turned on its head once it is revealed that the Eternal Khan is dead. From here on out, it was anyone’s guess what would happen. While I will admit to being a big fan of warrior-in-training stories so I didn’t actually mind the cliches in the first part that much, I also had a blast once the focus shifted to Jian’s exile and all the developments that followed.
Once Taishi left Jian at the school and they went their separate ways, that was also when I felt both characters were able come into their own. They became much more interesting as a result, after shaking off the expectations that came with their previous roles. It became a close contest at this point as to who was my favorite POV to follow, as Sali’s presence also grew more prominent as the story progressed. She was definitely one of the more memorable characters, caught between duty and her own personal mission to find her missing sister. Perhaps the only character I did not feel much sympathy for was Qisami. She seemed a little over-the-top, and had little depth beyond being the badass, merciless, psychotic assassin archetype. Hopefully the next book will give her more substance.
For the next installment, I’m also hoping for more world-building. What we got here was quite solid, but sometimes sparse in places. Knowing that this is an Asian-inspired world influenced especially by the traditions of wuxia made it somewhat easier to fill in any voids left in the setting, but I would love to see everything more fleshed out in the sequel—more depth in the history and cultures of the people and in the characters’ backstories.
But all in all, The Art of Prophecy was a great start, and clearly the next step in Wesley Chu’s journey as a writer. It’s a very ambitious project, one that I can see developing into an impressive tour de force. It was undeniably a winner in my eyes in terms of providing action and entertainment, two elements that are often rare or hard to maintain in an epic fantasy series, but which this novel had no problems delivering in high energy amounts. I hope the momentum will continue and I look forward to picking up the next book.