Title: The Hand, The Eye & The Heart
Author: Zoë Marriott
Cover Illustrator:  Kate Forrester
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre: Teen/young adult fiction, Historical, Fantasy
Book format: Paperback
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Description:  Zhilan was assigned female at birth.  Despite a gift for illusions, they are destined to live out their life within the confines of the women’s quarter.  But when civil war sets the empire aflame, Zhilan is determined to save their disabled father from the battlefield: by taking his place.  Surviving brutal army training as a boy – Zhi – is only the first challenge.  In the glittering court of the Land of Dragons, love and betrayal are two sides of the same smile, and soonvthe fate of a nation rests on Zhi’s shoulders.  But to win, they must decide where their heart truly belongs…

*Freee copy provided by publisher for review…

Review:  Wow, this really is an amazing story and so compelling that I read almost the entire book in one day! ‘The Hand, The Eye & The Heart’ is a historical fantasy set in a made up version of ancient China. Based on the classic tale of Mulan, although very much it’s own story, the tale follows Zhilan, the oldest child of the Hua family. When the Emperor calls all the men in Zhilan’s village to fight in the war against a powerful enemy, her father, once a great war hero but now disabled, must go to fight. But Zhilan knows if he goes he won’t survive, so she decides to take his place.

 Heart shiny cover image
©The Strawberry Post – Look at that shiny leaf detail!

I have a love of stories set in different cultures, including ancient China, so I really enjoyed getting into this book. Zhilan disguises herself as a teenage boy, and manages to get into the army and begin training. But being female while constantly keeping up the mask of being male brings her problems. Soon Zhilan isn’t just having difficulties with her army training, but she begins to question her own identity too. I really like the way this story goes, it is a beautiful and quite long adventure which takes on many twists and turns along the way. Zhilan, or Zhi, as she prefers to be called, faces some obvious issues living with men, things like disguising her female face are done with a form of magic using qi, and that’s where the fantasy in this story really lies. I like the fact that this story is more historical than fantasy though and what happens once enemies attack the camp really propels the story forwards.

At the start of the book I did wonder if I’d enjoy it it took me a bit of time to get into it. It’s easy enough to read, but there’s something slightly more descriptive or poetic about the writing. The descriptions of what is happening as well as Zhilan’s thoughts are often very detailed, but this does really immerse you in the story and it does have a good overall pace. After the camp attack, the action really does get more dramatic and the adventure really begins for the recruits. I don’t want to go into details over what happens as there are so many different events that lead up to the conclusion, but I will say that it really does make for a brilliant story and adventure with lots of surprising and quite dark twists along the way. I kept trying to guess things, like who was behind something, or how the story would end, but it was brilliant in its unpredictablity.

I enjoyed Zhilan’s character and how she grew through the story. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the tale does give a positive message about Zhi and people like her, who question the gender they were born with. At some point during the publication of this novel, I did read that there was a lot of controverty from certain people as to the author’s authority on writing about Asian people with gender identity issues, because the author herself isn’t Asian. Some chose to give this book low ratings (on Goodreads) purely for that reason and I do find the fact this even happened a great shame. The book does such a good job of portraying Zhi’s character, her questions as to who she is, feeling both female and yet male at the same time, and I do think this important and overall positive message has been lost on some people. While the majority of the story focuses on the wider adventure of what is happening in the war, I do like the way that this aspect of Zhi is portrayed along with the positive message about what women can do in cultures that don’t accept them as capable.

There are quite a few things which more sensitive or younger teens might find difficult to read. There is violence in the book, mentions of deaths, killings and blood, and quite graphic descriptions in some places. Not overly gruesome descriptions, but at the same time these would shock some younger teens or more sensitive readers.. It hasn’t shocked me personally as I’ve watched quite a lot of Chinese and Hong Kong movies that have been pretty violent, but I know it can be quite difficult for sensitive readers to get used to.

The story ends in a satisfying way and as I had hoped. I like the way the epilogue fills in the gaps of what happened next too. I did think the ending was perhaps almost too happy though (in an almost unbelievable way with what happened in later years according to the epilogue), but at the same time it’s definitely an ending I was hoping for! This book really has been a wonderful and beautiful read. The adventure alone is such a compelling one and the descriptions really make you feel like you are there, but the additional story of Zhi’s personal adventure and feelings as well as the constant twists and turns the story takes, really makes for an epic and amazing read!

I really have enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a historical adventure set in the ancient far east. Ignore the people who say silly things about who should have a right to tell stories from Asian culture, after all, what matters is that this tale is very well researched and I think anyone looking for a brilliant historical adventure set in fantasy version of ancient China would love to read this! I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Have you heard of the story of Mulan?  What do you think of re-tellings?  What historical fiction or fantasy novels do you like?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂