As a general rule, I enjoy Wuxia novels as a premise but not in practice. They tend to be poorly translated, never-ending, and redundant. Often, the world building is forsaken and the focus is on how the hero cultivates their power, which won’t matter too much because in a dozen or so more chapters they are just going to need to cultivate it further. So when Brandon Varnell announced he was going to be publishing the cultivation-inspired serial previously only available to his Patreon subscribers, I was cautiously optimistic. I enjoy Varnell’s works, even if at times they come off as heavily inspired by anime tropes. Could he pull off a cultivation story that I would want to read, without falling for the pits of the genre I tend to not care for?
Spoilers: Yes. And how.
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WIEDERGEBURT (German for “Rebirth”) stars Eryk Veiger, a man who has lost everything. His home, his wife and child, his purpose for being, all taken from him by a demon invasion. His only reason to live now is vengeance, and the book opens up with him kicking divine ass. It becomes apparent that despite the strength he shows, however, he’s clearly bitten off more than he can chew, and the Great Overlord of the Seventh Realm matches him blow for blow without any real effort. In a desperate gambit, Eryk counters an attack with all of his spiritual energy… and the result sends him back in time over three years from the present. He’s got knowledge of what is to come, as well as knowledge of multiple years of heavy martial arts training… but he’s trapped in his 17-year-old, untrained and unfocused body. He sets out to save his home town from the Demon Beast Invasion, meet up with his wife, and ultimately get revenge on how he was wronged the first time.
There are two things that this book does that some readers might not care for. I don’t see them as negatives in any real sense; in fact I feel that these choices make sense given the material. That said, these choices still might not be for everyone. The first thing to note is that as going back in time has created essentially two timelines, almost every chapter has a flashback of sorts. We see the Eryk of the past, who was weak physically but kind and compassionate. This is contrasted with the Eryk currently building himself up, who knows he doesn’t have the luxury of being weak and sets out to immediately train himself and try to get his spiritual abilities under control. This is a great way to explore what is important to Eryk and where he is coming from, and helps to frame the choices he makes and how the love for his spouse was cultivated. It also shows how the confidence he now has ultimately changes the present, sometimes not in straightforward or beneficial ways.
This book also focuses on worldbuilding and setting the tone of the story. To this end, once Eryk is sent back to the past there isn’t any other real physical conflict. This might be forgiven in Wuxia serials, which often have ridiculous number of chapters to string a reader along, but undoubtedly there will be readers who finish this first volume and wonder why it ends on a training note as opposed to with the main character’s fist in someone’s face. Personally, it’s a choice that makes sense to me; the hero’s journey here is one fraught with understanding who he was, but also who he is. It also helps to show what sort of country the city-state of Nevaria is. In some ways, it is beautiful and feels it important to implement nature into its very infrastructure; in others it is corrupted and falling apart. The line between nobility and peasant can be precarious, and while alliances are important in the end the fighter with the most power wins.
People, for the most part, don’t respect Eryk. He is young, he is effeminate, and he doesn’t appear to posess much power. Eryk handles this surprisingly well. There isn’t a sense of angst or a brash need to prove himself. Indeed, his focus on training himself and handling events around him keep him driven in a prudent manner that ensures he isn’t a pushover but he isn’t overreacting or starting fires he doesn’t need to be fighting. His response to discovering he doesn’t have access to his most basic techniques isn’t to wallow in defeat, but to discover the steps he needs to take to get them back under control. This aspect of the character fits the “cultivation” style and genre very well.
There’s a slow burn harem aspect to these novels which may seem strange, given the character’s professed love for his former spouse. I was surprised to see just how organically all of the relationships tend to build. In the first book, Eryk has met up with the younger version of his spouse and is proving to be more proactive in wooing her, but he has also found himself a mentorship relationship with another noble who clearly has a crush on him, and the seeds have been planted for him to have an affair with a lamia (in this case, a half-snake half-girl.) Unlike many tropes and stories of this type, the women feel well written and aren’t just tripping over themselves to reach for Eryk like he’s got the only manhood in town. Their reasons and affections burn steadily, and in an arc that makes sense for them. One feels that Eryk’s former spouse clearly has other options she could consider, but steadily finds herself pulled to Eryk because of his grounded attitude and the way he treats her as a person. The bonds of Eryk’s relationship with his trainee begin when he saves her life from a deadly spiritual disease, but this infatuation is challenged and grows naturally from there. The first book hasn’t really addressed the snake angle yet because she’s a snake more than a person. We’ll see in book two or three.
Ultimately, WIEDERGEBUR is an amazing start to what can only be an amazing franchise. The world breaths. The threats feel real. It’s easy to care about the characters. The universe is coherently built and its rules make sense. I can not wait to read the next couple of books in this franchise. I would heavily recommend this book not just to those who are interested in standard Wuxia novels but those interested in progression fantasy and watching a character come in to his own.
Image banner taken from Brandon Varnell’s website; you can view it here.