It took me a while to get into Bronze Drum. Nguyen writes with an elevated, epic-type style that made me feel like I was reading a book for school rather than one for fun. And there were many times early in the book where the style turned me off enough that I almost decided not to finish.
But once I did get into the rhythm, I ended up enjoying the book. Bronze Drum tells the story of the Trung sisters, who are noblewomen in the Lac Viet region of ancient Vietnam during the time of the Han occupation. Older sister Trung Thac is disciplined and wise, younger sister Trung Nhi is free-spirited and fierce. Han control weighs heavy on their family, as their community is forced to give most of their earnings to the Han government, and there’s lots of pressure to conform to Han religion and culture. (For example, patriarchal rather than matriarchal, Confucianism instead of Vietnamese gods, and marriage instead of a less formal approach towards love.)
The Trung sisters are historical figures, and from what I understand, their exploits are legendary and very well-known to many Vietnamese people. They led an army of women in an uprising against the Hans that turned out to be successful, and they actually ruled the kingdom for a few years before the Hans won back the land. Based solely on what I’ve learned from Wikipedia, the novel takes some liberties in making their triumph feel even more momentous (Trung Thac calls herself ‘she-king’ rather than ‘queen’ and renames herself Trung Vuong), and the end of their lives feel even more triumphant (with no spoilers, I love how the manner of their death in the novel differs from that in the Wikipedia article).
Like I said, the novel itself takes a while to get into. Unlike many other young adult history / fantasy novels, the writing style positions Trung Thac (a.k.a. Trung Vuong) and Trung Nhi more like epic figures than like flesh-and-blood women. We do get a good sense of their fierce love for each other, and their emotional connection to the other figures in their lives, including their respective love interests. But the novel never loses sight of the important role these women play in history. It did cause me to feel a bit detached from the story for the first few chapters, but once I got into the rhythm of Nguyen’s language, I found that he does include emotional nuances in these characters that do make them come to life. I also like how circumstances shape each sister to be more alike than different, i.e. Trung Thac learns to be less bound by rules, and Trung Nhi learns to be more patient.
I especially love the important role bronze drums play in the story. An introductory note explains that these instruments have great historical significance, to the point that when General Ma Yuan reconquers ancient Viet Nam for the Han government, he orders them all to be confiscated and melted into two bronze pillars as a symbol of Han might. Vietnamese women hid some of these drums though, as a symbol of resistance, and two thousand years later, archaeologists still find them well-preserved. I love how Nguyen handles the scene where these drums were melted — to show off his power, General Ma Yuan orders Vietnamese women to carry the pillars on their backs, and later, Nguyen notes that because of this, even though Han pulleys eventually erect the pillars, no Han hands actually touched the metal. It’s a nice little note of rebellion in an otherwise tragic moment, and I love the subversion.
And the symbolism of the drums becomes even more potent given how essential they were for the fighting. No spoilers, but I love how they were used in battle, and in fact, the battle scenes in the novel were my favourite part. I love how each sister brought her own specific strength to the battle: Trung Vuong’s sharp strategic mind and Trung Nhi’s martial abilities. And I love how the army is made up of commonfolk women, most of whom weren’t trained from birth to fight. Trung Vuong notes this fact, and there’s a great line about how the fate of Vietnam lies in its working class. There’s an especially powerful contrast with the Han government, which has conscripted Vietnamese men to their army, and often promotes men from high-ranking families to leadership. So even within the makeup of their respective armies, Nguyen draws a clear contrast that highlights the culture and traditions that the Trung sisters and their army are fighting to protect.
This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and certainly, it’s not one I imagine myself wanting to re-read. But I’m glad I did stick with it. I wasn’t familiar with the story of the Trung sisters, and I love the glimpse this gave me into Vietnamese history. I can only imagine how much more this will resonate with readers who are Vietnamese or who have Vietnamese heritage. This seems a super important part of their history, and for that alone, I think it’s worth a read.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.