Unbound by John Shors
John Shors’ thoughtful novels are all set in the exotic Far East, underpinned by universal themes of a search for love and the bonds that bring people together. Beneath the Marble Sky featured the Taj Mahal, the most exquisite example of love in the world, while Angkor Wat anchored Temple of a Thousand Faces. The setting in each of his novels is integral to the story and functions as a central character.
His latest and most expansive novel Unbound is set in ancient China on the Great Wall. The novel is based on the traditional Chinese folktale of Fan and Meng. As with most folktales, there are many versions with conflicting endings, and Shors has chosen one that best fits his themes. The title is an allusion to the practice of foot binding among upper class women, and is contrasted with Meng, a woman of low rank, who uses her mobility—literally and figuratively—to search for her beloved husband Fan. Thematically, she becomes freer the further she moves away from home.
In 1548 the Ming Empire faced a growing famine within its borders and the likelihood of an invasion from the Mongol hordes as they swept down from the North. The famous Wall that stretched from the ocean through the mountains to the steppes had imperfections in its armor so the Emperor conscripted millions of skilled workers and slaves to save the empire. Millions died in that effort to create and repair a wall that still thrills today in certain tourist-friendly places. “After all, could a shield of stone forever keep an ocean at bay? For the Mongols were no different than an irresistible force of nature.”
The central action of the novel takes place during two weeks in October. A skilled stone craftsman responsible for the upkeep of six miles of the wall, Fan was conscripted shortly after his marriage to Meng. He is as much a slave as Bataar, the captured Mongol boy who must serve him. Each pines to return home to their loved ones. They also share a common enemy in Yat-sen, the commander of this section of the wall.
History and culture are revealed as Meng travels north from Beijing to the Wall, dressed as a man. Shors’ descriptions of her journey, down to the clothing, manners, and food, are captivating. For example, Meng and a companion eat a meal of six deep-fried sparrows cooked in the Beijing style. De-feathered and de-boned, “They had likely been marinated in rice wine, onion stock, and sugar, then coated in flour and fried in peanut oil.” Later they scrounge through the fall leaves in an attempt to find chestnuts to stave off their hunger. During the trials of her journey north, even at great risk to her life, she grows stronger and more confidant. At one point she is robbed and left trussed like a pig on the way to market, but she “didn’t feel like a prisoner. For the first time in her life she understood what it was to be free.”
Shors has created a balanced plot in which the lines between good and evil often cross and intertwine. Fan and Meng are clearly modest and righteous. Yat-sen is plainly prideful, boastful, and evil; his counterpart, the Mongol commander Chuluun, is an honorable and steadfast leader and father of Bataar. But what of the greater conflict? The Chinese and Mongols are enemies, but which is the evil empire in this instance? Two ways of life, two cultures are at stake here, and Shors skillfully weighs them and finds both sides of the conflict culpable and honorable, or, at least as honorable as possible when two cultures and their armies collide.
Unbound is a captivating historical novel that brings the sweeping arc of global events to a personal level. It is a love story at its heart: Meng’s search for Fan and his steadfast love for her stand at the core of the story. Fan and Bataar’s growing respect for one another parallels Chuluun’s love for his son. Finally, as in all those great Elizabethan plays, Shors brings all the players together in one sprawling final battle between the two armies and the major characters to resolve the various networks of plot lines.