bookrev: The Crocodile and The Crane by Arthur Rosenfeld
I find Mr. Rosenfeld a kindred spirit: an author, a martial artist, a studier of ancient civilizations. His previous effort on martial arts fiction, The Cutting Season, remains one of my favorite efforts in that narrow niche.
On the surface, the plot of The Crocodile and The Crane seems predictable: two Chinese children learn a set of qigong exercises from their father, who is a savant of the ways of internal energy, and the exercises make them immortal (or at least slow down their aging). A biological disease based on the “too many fish in the fish bowl” theory attacks mankind, quickly spreading around the world. The obvious plot line is that the unique qigong practice thwarts the disease, the main question is how or if it gets out to the public at large.
What makes Mr. Rosenfeld’s telling of the story so enjoyable are the subplots, the philosophy, the history that is woven into the fabric of the story. The book is a page turner, rarely slowing down.
The two immortals, Gao Sanfeng and his sister, Gao Zetian, are two sides of the same coin: Sanfeng uses his immortality and powers to search for inner peace, Zetian uses hers for outer power (and is something of a succubus, sucking power sexually from her lovers). Their interactions and feelings toward each other and their powers are pivotal to the story. Rosenfeld tells their story in present day vignettes and historical Chinese history flashbacks (where many martial arts creations and Chinese milestones are attributed to either the brother or the sister):
“He’s a man of vision, you know,” she says, pausing to look at the unconscious emperor. “I think I’ll let him live.”
“Believe me, he’ll remain a man of vision without you murmuring sweet nothings in his ear,” Sanfeng dryly replies.
“He’s going to make a story of me.”
“So I heard.”
“Queen Mother of the West. I like that.”
“The real reason you spare him, of course. I, no doubt, shall be King Father of the East.”
It’s a difficult task for an author to write of an immortal, alive for 3,000 years, capable of dying only if heart or head are taken. With the exception of some smatterings of dialog, Mr. Rosenfeld portrays them well, with Sanfeng growing weary of losing the people around him (and ultimately taking action to remedy this) and Zetian treating mortals as throwaway dolls.
The character of Dalton Day is used in several facets: martial artist and American qigong genius (who has almost but not quite figured out the Gao’s special family qigong) turned media icon via publication of a book that brings Chinese qigong and philosophy to the western world, he is both knowledge seeker and expert-on-a-booktour, providing the author with the needed avenue to explain the martial arts philosophy to both the uninitiated and the trained:
“Overemphasizing the conscious mind leaves us distracted, depressed, preoccupied with material things, reliant upon instant gratification, confused and unable to reach our potential. Only when we cultivate our intuitive mind, what I call the inner boxer, can we achieve a healthy equilibrium. Through movement and meditation, I can show you how to do that, and thereby become more peaceful, more productive and more prosperous.”
Other modern characters provide the backdrop for the conflicts caused by the biological “plague”, the hunt for the cure, Dalton’s search for Sanfeng and Zetian’s need for control and power.
As a martial artists, there are many “easter eggs” here, including references to energy emitting qigong, silk reeling, stopping time through mind and meditation and others. The author asks readers to suspend belief in thinking of the immediate power and change qigong practice can have on an individual; but novices experiencing certain martial arts movements for the first time usually can self-observe interesting changes.
Arthur Rosenfeld is two for two in the genre of martial arts fiction, and I eagerly await his next effort.