Set in unfamiliar territory, both geographically and historically for most readers, including this one, the story of Asena and Swiftarrow around 665 AD has a curiosity value added to the tale of their involvement with each other. Asena is a Shaiman, a person within the Horse Tribe who foresees events and is forbidden to love a boy. Swiftarrow, trained as a Shaolin, is a captive of the Empress of China who holds his beautiful sister in a ransom for his services. Swiftarrow is sent to lead General Li to the Horse Tribe to kill them and also to find another young tribesman or woman to train as a Shaolin. He sees Asena and she, being mesmerized by him, is unable to stop herself leading him to the tribe and sees her uncle killed and her father wounded. Asena is then taken to the Shaolin house and in the midst of her guilt comes to hate both herself and Swiftarrow, and vows to kill the Empress in revenge. The complicated plot, told in the alternate voices of Asena and Swiftarrow, comes to a conclusion with her attempt to murder the Empress and her subsequent flight to freedom with Swiftarrow.
The use of the alternate voices and the beautiful descriptions of the steppes and the Empress’s palace with its many courtyards give the story a cinematic quality and do indeed paint pictures in the reader’s head. It was difficult to understand the historical background at first but after a while this did not matter too much and it is clarified by the notes at the end of the story. The inward spiritual life is not explored much in fiction but in this story becomes quite fascinating, and could well lead the reader on to explore Buddhism and other religions further. This book is not an easy read but becomes a rewarding one as one progresses further. One small point is that the girl on the cover does not look as eastern as one would expect from the setting.