|Ti Lung in the 1978 film based on the book|
These are very rough overviews. I don't think my notes quite do the story justice, so I would encourage anyone with interest to read the book. It is a very fast and engaging story (a little over three-hundred pages or so).
Chapter One: The book opens on Mount Jumbled Rocks (otherwise known as Bandit Mountain) in a bath tub in an inn. Everyone here is a bandit, including the innkeeper. Feng Siniang bathes as local low-lives peep at her. She unleashes 12 needles and each one is struck in the eye. She is here to find Hua Ping, leader of the bandits of Guanzhong, hoping he will help her obtain the Deer Carver Sword. Hua Ping arrives and kills them to put them out of their misery. He reveals his left arm, which is famous for his Left Handed Divine Sabre Technique, has been cut off by Xiao Shiyi Lang. She decides to go find Flying Doctor instead, whose lightness kung fu will be a big asset in her venture. She arrives to find him on a palanquin being attacked by his bearers.
Chapter Two: Flying Doctor kills the bearers and reveals his legs have been chopped off by Xiao Shiyi Lang. When they go to Flying Doctor's Tomb (her resides in a tomb and sleeps in a coffin), they discover his coffin has been stolen. A boy arrives with a missing arm, and says "Xiao Shiyi Lang", suggesting Xiao Shiyi Lang stole the coffin (the coffin contains an inscription of Flying Doctor's Kung Fu). Feng Siniang tracks down the thief, who is strung upside-down in a tree. She demands to know who hired him and why he tried to masquerade as Xiao Shiyi Lang, but the bandit swallows poison and dies instead. When she returns to the tomb, Xiao Shiyi Lang has already returned the coffin to Flying Doctor.
Chapter Three: It is Feng Siniang's birthday, she is thirty four and feeling lonely. She drinks and Xiao Shiyi Lang arrives. She shows him two swords, Blue Jade and Crimson Glow. Crimson Glow has been cut.
Chapter Four: They eat noodles and we learn that Xiao Shiyi Lang is the most famed and professional thief in 500 years. She then tells him the story of Deer Carver Blade (the sword that cut it). It was forged 6 months ago by Xu Luxi, a descendent of the great swordsmith Madame Xu (Madame Xu isn't a woman, "Madame" was her personal name). The name of the blade comes from the poem that states "The Qin Empire has fallen and lost its deer", because the deer represents the throne. Deer Carver is on its way to Guanzhong, being escorted by Zhao Wuji, Chief of Supreme Boundless Gate, with the help of Tu Xiaotian, Hai Lingzi and Zikong Shu: The One-Armed Hawk King. She wants his help getting the sabre but she ends up having to do it herself.
Chapter Five: This chapter is set at Endeyuan (a Muslim restaurant) run by Boss Ma Huihui. Feng Siniang poses as a prostitute to get close to One-Armed Hawk King and take the Deer Carving Sabre. She manages to paralyze him, only to discover this is itself a trick, and he uses his arm extending ability to grab her. Xiao Shiyi Lang leaps in through the window, takes the Deer Carving Sabre and stops One-Armed Hawk King. Feng Siniang manages to take the sabre and escape , leaving Xiao Shiyi Lang. Later, Xiao Shiyi Lang returns to her and asks for the Blue Jade in exchange for his help. She gives it, he tells her that the Deer Carver is a fake, that One-Armed Hawk King was a decoy. He then gives her Blue Jade as a birthday gift.
I was struck by the number of martial arts techniques and styles mentioned. I tend to think of Gu Long as placing less emphasis on them than other writers, but here he makes frequent mention. I will say though, his writing style, which utilizes a lot of brevity and suggestive description, can easily gloss over the details. But we do get some specifics. One case that is interesting is One-Armed Hawk King's arm lengthening ability. Another is the same characters Strength of the Hawk Talons (which he uses to rip the heart from a live ox so he can eat it).
I think it is interesting that the story begins with Feng Siniang, even though the protagonist is Xiao Shiyi Lang. We have about 3-4 chapters of Siniang, before Xiao Shiyi Lang is introduced. And her personality is most unusual. Her character is very sexual, but also in love with Xiao Shiyi Lang. She expresses a disdain for conservative traditions regarding the relationships of men and women. For example, she carries Flying Doctor to his tomb when she discovers his legs are missing, but he protests because men and women are not supposed to have physical contact. She responds saying "I never pay attention to these stupid restrictions." But Feng Siniang wants to settle down and start a family.
At this point in the story we don't know very much about Xiao Shiyi Lang, though he comes off as charming and a bit carefree. Most of his dialogue with Siniang is teasing in nature, but he and she clearly have a history and friendship. We do know he is younger than Siniang. She is 34, while he is 27, so he calls her Big Sister.
The fights in this are all pretty quick, and the descriptions are quite interesting. Gu Long has a tendency to skip ahead a bit, and you need to just figure out what is going on based on context. It all makes sense, it isn't difficult to follow, but it gives the book a more intense pacing.
The presence of the Muslim restaurant is interesting. Also the way backstory is handled is quite nice. Siniang explains the background the of blades. The first two have long histories, so when you hear that a 6-month old sabre has cut one of them, it is pretty striking. We also learn about the Battle of Tongye Island where the island's disciples were wiped out by Hainan school (and only one pupil of Hainan, Hai Lingzi, survived).
The characters all feel unique and eccentric. We get quick glimpses of basic martial styles that highlight the character's personalities.
The language is sometimes surprisingly direct and libertine at times. For example, this is a line that Siniang thinks when she is masquerading as a prostitute at the Muslim restaurant:
She knew that the less she dressed up, the more she would stand out as a refreshing beauty.Obviously this is a translation, so I can't say for sure if this matches the original text's frankness (hopefully I can get some clarity on this in the next few days and post an update if there original text is at all different in this respect).
There is something ironic about men's expectations. They like a whore not to act like a whore, but rather to act like a noble lady or the girl next door.
On the other hand, when they meet a decent woman, they wish she would act like a whore in bed.
I also noticed the story mentions Count Carefree very early (dropping his name in one of the first few chapters). He becomes a more important character later.
This is just the first five chapters. There are 25 in total. Looking forward to continuing with these posts. I am also planning on using these notes to compare to the 2016 drama series and the film Swordsman and the Enchantress.