On Writing: Action vs. Politics in Nirvana in Fire

Caveat: there’s no official translation of the book Nirvana in Fire. Nor is there a Region 1 friendly DVD set that has all the episodes. I’ve been watching subbed eps on YouTube. Partly for Something Completely Different from the stories I’m working on, but also because the main character is a Non Action Guy. The main characters in my Oni stories aren’t experts at fighting. I figured NiF might have useful hints on how to keep readers interested when the main character isn’t someone who can physically bring the fight to the enemy.

It does indeed. Though I can’t exactly throw in a ninja attack every 5 episodes. (I can, however, throw in odd critters attacking. So.) Below be spoilers. You have been warned.

Nirvana in Fire is intriguing because instead of the common wuxia Roaring Rampage of Revenge (which would require lots of main character action) it is instead one man’s carefully masterminded Roaring Rampage of Justice. Mei Changsu (formerly Lin Shu, also alias Sir Su Zhe) is out to clear 70,000 names; the Chiyan Army, falsely declared traitors to the Emperor twelve years ago and wiped out to the last man….

Almost the last man. And thereby hangs the tale.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that if Mei Changsu just wanted to take the Emperor’s life in revenge, he’d do it. But that’s not his goal. He wants justice. The names of innocent men cleared, so any surviving family can come out of hiding and their souls can rest in peace. The corrupt ministers who whispered of treason removed from office and disgraced, so they can never ruin another life. And the Emperor….

The Emperor is just a man, and getting older. He’ll die in his own time. Mei Changsu intends to make sure the next emperor is not a creature of plots and assassinations, but a ruler truly out to lead and do well by his people.

Revenge is simple. Justice – that’s hard.

Seeking to get the Chiyan Army legally declared innocent means action is not the most crucial part of the story. It’s important – this is wuxia! – but it’s a tool toward the goal. Not the goal itself.

This frees up the story to use many flavors of action, and turn the intensity up and down as needed to draw you in. On the low end there’s sparring and treasure hunts; on the high end, military maneuvers and a one-man assault on a palace to rescue a princess from a Fate Worse Than Death. All of it’s either driven by politics or by meeting people Mei Changsu wants to rope into his master plan, whether they know it or not. One of the tensest moments in the first 15 eps is when a renowned scholar shows up at court just in time to rescue one side of a debate over ritual propriety.

(An academic philosopher getting a Big Damn Heroes moment. You don’t see that every day.)

Mei Changsu can’t fight his own battles; the exertion would kill him. He has to rely on his wits, his master plan, his improvised plans in moments everything goes to heck, and the people he trusts to act for him. At the same time everyone else in court has their own schemes, and we get to see them fail or succeed.

Boiled down, the story makes sure someone is always carrying out an action, even if there’s no physical fight. It may be discussing who to plot against next, it may be walking through the aftermath of an arson, it might even be sewing a perfume sachet. (Yes, that was actually plot-critical. Never cross Consort Jing.) Someone is always doing something.

That, and the show has an absolute gift for ending almost every ep on an Evil Cliffie.

Just some stray thoughts, in case anyone else is stuck on how to keep things moving without a fight every 10 pages!

And if you do want to see some of the action… the teenager in blue is Fei Liu, Mei Changsu’s ward and bodyguard. He has opinions on people touching his Su-gege without asking. 😉

12 thoughts on “On Writing: Action vs. Politics in Nirvana in Fire

  1. I’m currently watching Nirvana in Fire and I love it for these exact reasons. I get a little tired of stories where violence is the answer to all problems. I love heroes who are smart, who are compassionate, who actually consider consequences for the actions they take.
    I love Nirvana in Fire for all those reasons and also because it’s really fun to watch with my sister and translate the political doublespeak together.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have been fond of stories that delve into subtle use of power, social and political, over usage of main force. Sounds intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *Hides under bed* I’m determined to finish something else before I start any other fandom’s fics!

      …There is one idea vaguely poking me, but I don’t know enough details of canon to even start figuring out how to pull it off, yet. (In short: canon, Mei Changsu thinks he’s going to die, and maybe the soldier Lin Shu would, but he’s been a jianghu chief for over a decade. They’re supposed to be a bit mystically tough….)


      1. To be fair, I blame my current… I’m trying to find a better word than obsession, but whatever, with MDZS on you. I didn’t start watching it until you posted the first chapter of A Long Road.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s fair. 😉 I’ve apparently dragged a lot of people into odd fandoms. I just get so interested in possibilities….

        Long Road and Onni first, dagnabbit. I have a plan for where those should end off! (Possibly with epilogue stuff later, but I do have a plan.)


      3. *crazy eyes cheerful*

        Hey, balanced by me! There are several fandoms you write for where after being introduced by your fanfic, I can’t stand the original– Gundam being the worst, so far! SAO if I hadn’t already fallen in love with it might be another, but less solid. 😀

        (#finds this amusing, #hopesyoudo)

        Liked by 1 person

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