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Readers undoubtedly miss Chen Uen’s illustrations, but the story is so brilliant that it deserved to be a standalone novel and has prompted many to reread the comic book.
Abi-Sword inevitably reminds people of King Arthur and The Sword in the Stone, or the sword of destiny from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the legendary Japanese sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi. It’s also reminiscent of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber by the master of wuxia, Jin Yong, where the weapons are crucial in driving the development of the entire story and follow the pattern of rule by righteousness seen in martial arts novels. Abi-Sword, with its hammered blade and Ksitigarbha engraved on the hilt, is the key to the whole story, where a slight turn can bring a reign of terror upon the entire martial arts world.
The story is told from the perspective of the ninth envoy of the Abi-Sword, Ping Chuan, a waiter at an inn who encounters a guest that happens to be a martial arts scholar. Ping Chuan learns some basic sword-fighting skills before setting out to travel across the country. The story’s rousing words unfurl like an ink painting.
There’s something magical about the phrase “to travel across the country” that stirs something within every young reader with lofty ambitions, and Ping Chuan has the kind of opportunity that all teenagers long for. He studies martial arts and startles himself when he tries them out on a fight in a small tavern, but he also suffers setbacks including unjust criminal charges and being left by his lover. He is a devoted companion to Wu-Sheng and the two are close friends despite their age difference. By travelling with Wu-Sheng, Ping Chuan has had the chance to gain 30-40 years’ worth of inner strength. Ping Chuan has all the opportunities that a martial arts protagonist should have, so why in that moment when Wu-Sheng pulls out the Abi-Sword, is he destined to play a supporting role?
Many questions are answered as the story progresses: the origin of the ninth envoy, the legend of the Abi-Sword, and even Wu-Sheng’s past life are revealed. However, it also raises more questions, like what is the relationship between Wu-Sheng and the character Yu-Jing who appears in comic book’s first and final chapters? What happens to Ping Chuan’s lover? And what happens next in the story? I believe this time author Ma Li won’t keep us waiting too long to find out.
Ultimately, Abi-Sword shows the reader that hell can take many forms in this life. The old man in the comic book who kills his grandson to appease his hunger, and the evil county magistrate in the novel who’s happy to kill innocent people, are both living in hell. The world is in chaos and misery is everywhere, the only way a hero can bring redemption is by breaking the ban on martial arts. As readers, it’s always easy to project our own experiences onto the protagonist but overlook the suffering.
As Wu-Sheng states: “Oh, the Abi-Sword! They say it can be used for good or evil, for Buddha or the devil, but I have used it and know that the devil can be as big as a mountain – and that Buddha can be even smaller than a snowflake!”
Isn’t that just the nature of human life?