Ace Books, 1985, 243 pages
Known to readers for her magnificent TOMOE GOZEN SAGA, Jessica Amanda Salmonson here turns her talents to the story of a simple man's quest for love.
Lu Khen was in love with the madwoman who lived in the forest. But the Powers had decreed that an ordinary mortal could never marry one blessed with the gift of madness. To win it for himself, Lu Khen set out for the crumbling tombs of the Lost Dynasty, a period of demonic rule so horrifying that it had been erased from the history books.
There he would find the power to win the love he sought... or perish!
My all-time favorite epic fantasy series is Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen trilogy, and I recommend you read that review for more about it and the author. Even though you have probably never heard of her, the fantasy genre owes Salmonson a great debt — she put women warriors not wearing chainmail bikinis on paperback covers back when that was pretty novel.
Unfortunately, swords and sorcery tales, no matter how epic and well-written, are out of style, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson seems to have retired to editing small-press anthologies and writing movie reviews.
Like Tomoe Gozen, Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman was written in a very different publishing era, and it shows. It is a straightforward fantasy adventure that doesn't put on high concept trappings to lure the reader in. But it is beautifully written and it's a delightful adventure with endearing characters. It's not just a fantasy adventure, though. This book has surprising depth in such a short length, examining every character's motivation and even delving into philosophical tangents that actually enrich the narrative.
Just as Tomoe Gozen was set in a parallel-universe fantasy Japan, Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman is set in a fantasy China. "China" is never actually mentioned by name, but Salmonson constructs a physical and cultural geography clearly analogous to "our" China, but one in which magic and mythical beings are real. This China is not a homogeneous and generic "Oriental fantasy world" — it is like the real historical China, a vast land of many different nations and cultures foreign and strange to each other, just like Europe in the Dark Ages.
Ou Lu Khen is the eldest son of a family of peasant farmers. As the head of the family, he is responsible for everyone from his hundred-year-old great-grandfather Ou Po Lee to his little sister Koy. But he has fallen in love with a woman named Yeung Mai Su, who lives in a smallhouse where she is brought food by her aunt, the only one who cares about the mad girl.
This did not mean that Yeung Mai Su wished upon all people a kind of blind madness, for she herself was aware that the hawk slew and the shadows were inhabited. But in madness even fear and death and sorrow were beautiful. They are part of the circularity that does not divide darkness from light, but is whole. People who suffer from sanity believe there is no beauty in pain. But those same people would discover, by passing near the smallhouse on this moonlight night, that there was only beauty in the heartsinking pain and sorrow of Mai Su's song and voice.
Lu Khen wants to marry Mai Su, but the Buddha forbids an ordinary man from marrying one blessed with madness. After the local monks tell him the same thing, and scorn him for his desire to be made mad himself, Lu Khen returns home. However, when the burdens of being the eldest son of his impoverished family weigh on him too heavily, he renounces them and flees into the wilds with the trusting, otherworldly Mai Su.
Their quest takes them to the tombs of the Lost Dynasty, an evil empire that ruled for a thousand years with such wickedness that it has been erased from history books. The star-crossed lovers are followed by Lu Khen's little sister, Koy, and his great-grandfather, Ou Po Lee, who wish to bring their prodigal family head back.
Following them, like Gollum, is an exile from the island nation of Naipon named Harada Fumiaka, who started chasing Lu Khen because he stole Harada's boat, but gradually his bitterness and self-pity turns him into a true villain with a grudge against them all that draws the attention of a far more sinister being.
While Lu Khen and Mai Su are the catalysts and ostensibly the main characters, and the novel is shaped around their quest, the adventures of Po Lee and Koy are the real heart of the story. Lu Khen, who started it all, becomes little more than a sidekick to Mai Su, who began as a helpless MacGuffin of a passive character and becomes the center of it all. But Po Lee and Koy, who just want to bring their great-grandson/brother home, are the ones who have adventures and discover things and change. The old man and the little girl are brave and funny and their story is the most touching.
Koy was forever a combination of obedience and obstinance. But the fact was, she had no intention of fighting the Naga with Harada's sword. Po Lee, however, was not privy to her feelings about the sword. It was natural that he should fear that she was holding it in order to do something stupid. Certain that she had some plan impossible to accomplish, he rushed out from cover and started toward her, scolding all the while, "Did I tell you you could take it from the scabbard?"
"It is only a good luck charm!" she shouted in defense, and stamped a foot as much from frustration as anything else. She was sad to see her great-grandfather angry with her.
Even the pathetic Harada Fumiaka turns out to be worthy of more than pity. There is an epic, dramatic climax involving supernatural battles, apotheosis, redemption and death, and finally, a truly satisfying and appropriate epilogue.
The book includes black and white illustrations by Wendy Wees, who also illustrated the Tomoe Gozen series.
Have you read Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman?
Have you read any other books by Jessica Amanda Salmonson?
Verdict: I'm a huge fan of Jessica Amanda Salmonson and wish she was still writing fantasy. Like most of her books, Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman is out of print and I don't think any of them have been made into ebooks. They're so out of print you probably can't even pirate them. But if you are a fan of any combination of: (a) Asian fantasy; (b) epic fantasy; (c) traditional swords and sorcery; (d) non-traditional protagonists; (e) descriptive, poetic writing; then hunt down this book or the Tomoe Gozen trilogy. They are pure fun and better than almost any fantasy being written today.
Also by Jessica Amanda Salmonson: My reviews of The Tomoe Gozen trilogy and A Silver Thread of Madness.
My complete list of book reviews.