The Art of Prophecy
by Wesley Chu
544pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.57/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.18/5

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Book Description:

A “superb fantasy saga” (Helene Wecker) of martial arts and magic, about what happens when a prophesied hero is not the chosen one after all—but has to work with a band of unlikely allies to save the kingdom anyway, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lives of Tao

“An ambitious and touching exploration of disillusionment in faith, tradition, and family—a glorious reinvention of fantasy and wuxia tropes.”—Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

So many stories begin the same way: With a prophecy. A chosen one. And the inevitable quest to slay a villain, save the kingdom, and fulfill a grand destiny.

But this is not that kind of story.

It does begin with a prophecy: A child will rise to defeat the Eternal Khan, a cruel immortal god-king, and save the kingdom.

And that prophecy did anoint a hero, Jian, raised since birth in luxury and splendor, and celebrated before he has won a single battle.

But that’s when the story hits its first twist: The prophecy is wrong.

What follows is a story more wondrous than any prophecy could foresee, and with many unexpected heroes: Taishi, an older woman who is the greatest grandmaster of magical martial arts in the kingdom but who thought her adventuring days were all behind her; Sali, a straitlaced warrior who learns the rules may no longer apply when the leader to whom she pledged her life is gone; and Qisami, a chaotic assassin who takes a little too much pleasure in the kill.

And Jian himself, who has to find a way to become what he no longer believes he can be—a hero after all.

Note: You may want to read this review on the website (instead of by email or feed reader). There are spoiler tags before the last paragraph that should be hidden on the website but may be visible elsewhere, although some may not consider these spoilers since they are from the first fifth of the book.

The Art of Prophecy is the first book in The War Arts Saga, an epic fantasy series by Astounding Award winner and New York Times bestselling author Wesley Chu. I was excited about this novel with magical martial arts due to the premise of a prophecy that turned out to be wrong and a couple of the characters: namely, an older woman who had thought her adventuring days were over and a chaotic assassin. But I ended up having rather mixed feelings about The Art of Prophecy, which I enjoyed throughout Act I but was less and less enthusiastic about the further into it I got. Basically, I moderately liked one character and one other character’s storyline, was fairly indifferent to another character and most of her plot, and was outright annoyed by the point-of-view character introduced around the halfway point.

The story begins with the great martial arts master Taishi evaluating Jian, the teenage boy destined to one day defeat the Eternal Khan, and his progress as their future savior. But as she watches him fight, Taishi realizes there is a big problem: despite having potential, Jian is not a good fighter, or even an adequate one. Sure, his moves look good, but his opponents hold back, knowing they will be killed if they so much as nick their hero. If in a real fight, he would have been dead several times, and it will be years before he can just hold his own against a foe like the Eternal Khan, let alone emerge victorious. Furthermore, Jian is indecisive in the heat of battle, which Taishi finds unsurprising given that he’s being trained by eight masters—mainly appointed for political reasons rather than skill—who tend to give him contradictory advice. So Taishi takes matters into her own hands, revealing their champion’s shortcomings and appointing herself his new and only master, as someone who is not only a legendary martial artist herself but also someone who has faced the Eternal Khan. However, shortly after she takes over his training, something happens that changes everything. It seems that Jian is not the chosen one after all, and suddenly, the goal he’s spent his entire life training for is obsolete—and many see the existence of their so-called savior as an issue.

This was an intriguing setup, but I felt that this was the best part of the book and that it became less compelling once Taishi and Jian went their separate ways. My favorite element of The Art of Prophecy was the dynamic between the two, whose mentor/mentee relationship had a rough start given that Taishi publicly humiliated her pupil and dismissed his previous teachers. Jian is not used to being challenged or viewed as a human being rather than a divine one, and he hates that Taishi treats him like a mere teenage boy and even dares to suggest he could improve. Taishi was also the most interesting character to me: an experienced older master who lost an arm, has power over wind, and is just kind of grumpy and over everyone’s crap. Yet beneath her grouchy exterior, she does have a soft spot for Jian and wants what’s best for him, even when he’s cross with her for ruining his luxurious lifestyle.

Taishi may have been my favorite character, but I actually preferred Jian’s story to hers once the two split up. Jian has to pretend to be a normal person with little training in a martial arts school, where he makes new friends and deals with students rivalries. His friendships and time spent in school were moderately entertaining, and I found this more engaging than Taishi’s search for more information on the prophecy and what went wrong with it. Even though I was curious about what she would discover on her quest, there was more traveling and fighting than learning more about it, which I didn’t find especially gripping.

In addition to the first two characters introduced, there are two other viewpoints, also written in third person. Sali is a mighty warrior and close friend of the Eternal Khan’s, and I did enjoy having the perspective of someone from the other side of the conflict. However, I found the first few chapters focusing on her role among her people more compelling than her later adventures, after she decides to search for someone. It probably didn’t help that the further I got into her story, the more she ran into the one character I did not like at all: Qisami, an assassin seeking Jian.

Even though the first three main characters introduced had potential to be compelling, none of the four had in-depth characterization. Jian is the only one with even a basic development arc, given that he starts as a spoiled chosen one and is humbled through his experiences and lack of daily worship. The others are all in pursuit of various goals, and the approach to creating their characters seemed to be giving them a few key traits—one of which is “being a badass”—and really leaning into these characteristics. Taishi is a grumpy badass who can control the winds and hides a heart underneath her cantankerousness, Sali is a badass who wields a cool shapeshifting weapon and is loyal to her younger sister, and Qisami is a badass with shadow powers and an insatiable lust for blood (and Sali, once she meets her). Whereas Taishi and Sali have at least a little duality, Qisami does not, plus all her main personality traits are amped up to 11. She’s focused on fighting and killing, flirting, and spouting quips that try much too hard to be amusing (and fail miserably). This got old really fast, and I started internally groaning every time I started a new chapter and saw the name “Qisami” somewhere on the page.

My feelings about the worldbuilding were similar to that of most of the characterization: though there were some intriguing concepts introduced, they were surface level and weren’t fleshed out enough. The various fighting magics sounded like they could have been visually fantastic, and I did love learning about Sali’s people’s customs in her earlier chapters—what was expected of her (which I won’t discuss for fear of spoiling too much) and the mobile cities that set them apart from the “land-chained.” But as someone who wants societies and people with dimension in the stories I consume, these were not expanded on enough for my taste.

There’s one other thing that bothered me related to the book’s premise that I want to mention for others who also thought it sounded promising. Some may not consider this a spoiler since why the prophecy went wrong is revealed in the third chapter, and the aforementioned specific part is 20% of the way in, but it’s behind spoiler tags for those who would rather not know.

Despite a promising start, I ended up dissatisfied with The Art of Prophecy as a whole. Other than one character’s chapters, it wasn’t a bad book, but it was also only mildly entertaining at best after Act I—and even the lines I found amusing during that first 28% of the novel were not memorable enough that I could recall them later. As I was nearing the end, I discovered I just didn’t care anymore or have any desire to find out what happens in the next book, and the more I reflect on it after having finished it, the more I find the lack of world and character depth disappointing.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Art of Prophecy