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Sign of the Qin: Outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh #1    by L. G. Bass order for
Sign of the Qin
by L. G. Bass
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author's note at the back of this fantasy novel tells us it is partly inspired by the true story of a small band of Chinese Song Dynasty outlaws who hid in the Shandong Province marshes, and fought back in the style of Robin Hood. Bass gives us an oriental world, in which demons and heavenly powers co-exist with men. Though intended for young adults, I think its complexity would challenge all but older teens.

There's an evil, but cowardly Emperor, who sends his Empress, Silver Lotus, into penniless exile immediately after she bears him an heir marked with the outlaw sign of the Qin. At the same time we're introduced to the famed outlaw brothers of Moonshadow Marsh, White Streak and Black Whirlwind, and their Mother Gu, who teaches matrial arts and runs the Phoenix inn, with its 'endless parade' of Silk Road travellers. Their Dragon King father assigns White Streak the task of locating the 'Chosen One', descendant of Starlord Hung Wu, needed to save the world from a demonic horde. White Streak calls it 'finding a phantom to do battle with ghosts'.

In the meantime, the discarded Empress, Silver Lotus, meets the Tattooed Monk, who helps her and trains her in the martial arts. They grow to love each other. The Monk (aka General Calabash) is an immortal, close to the King of Heaven, Master Hand. In the celestial realm, we see him reporting a horrific eruption that destroyed the order of the Silver Lotus (including the Empress's father), and observing his master's judgment of Monkey for repeated thefts (Monkey is after a shortcut to immortality). Both Monkey and the Tattooed Monk are assigned as guardians to the infant prince.

Prince Zong grows miraculously, with impressive abilities. He and his nursemaid Jade Mirror (who works for Mother Gu) fend off assassin T'sao T'sao, hired by the Emperor to kill his son. When Monkey and Zong meet, they become fast friends in a spontaneous loving moment that 'sealed their fate, and the fate of an empire, forever.' Zong's new guardian plans to teach the boy 'the highest of fighting forms - Monkey kung fu'. He'll need them to deal with the minions of Yamu, Lord of the Dead. Zong grows fast, and enjoys the 'freedom of solitary discovery' until he learns to be afraid, and Master Hand steals his childhood.

Though the story starts slowly and its transitions are at times awkward, Sign of the Qin is a novel, engaging hero quest. I enjoyed its odd alliances (such as that between the harpy and Day Rat), and the philosophic banter, as when peasant Granny comes back from the dead to scornfully admonish her son 'How many stinging scorpions does it take to teach you to sting back?' This episode ends with greedy Monkey shamed and punished, and a pivotal meeting between Zong and the outlaw brothers. The Prince learns that his 'battle has just begun.'

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