The First Step by Tao Wong (A Thousand Li: Book 1)

The First Step by Tao Wong has been on my radar for quite a while. I can’t remember exactly how I found it. It was probably during one of my periodic searches for progression fantasy. I do remember when I sat down to read it, however. It was right after I finished Wintersteel by Will Wight and I needed more progression fantasy but had nothing left to read in the Cradle series at the time. So, I picked up the first book in Wong’s historical fantasy. I was not disappointed.

If you aren’t familiar with the term progression fantasy, it’s a somewhat new label for books that draw on certain themes present in Chinese cultivation stories. It has overlap with wuxia and xianxia, as well as some similarities to litRPG. Basically, progression fantasy refers to stories where a focus of the story involves progressing along one’s path, most notably in magic. Therefore, Will Wight’s Cradle series is perhaps the most often cited example, though Andrew Rowe’s Arcane Ascension series also qualifies. To give you a more well-known example, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive has progression fantasy elements, as the magic users in that story must uncover words and truths about themselves in order to - basically - level up in the magic system. Tao Wong’s story is a more traditional cultivation fantasy, set in ancient China, it follows a young farm boy as he joys a sect of cultivators and begins his own journey of progression.

There is a great deal to love in this story. Perhaps the element that stood out most for me was the main character, Long Wu Ying. As a character, Wu Ying is very relatable. He has a stubborn streak and, far from being a prophesied savior or savant, most of what he is able to accomplish he achieves by sheer determination. This is a wonderful way to play with the farm boy trope found in so much western fantasy. Speaking of which, that’s another thing I really loved - this is non-western fantasy in every sense of the word. The setting is ancient China, but more than just the setting, the tone of the story echoes Chinese cultivation stories. Wong even includes some Chinese in dialog and provides footnotes to elucidate some of the more obscure aspects of the cultivation genre, to offer translations of Chinese phrases, or to explain what might be a confusing character reaction to western audiences. All of this is so well done, and doesn’t take you out of the story at all. There are also some very interesting and memorable side-characters that play on some traditional tropes. Of course, the actual magic in the novel, based around cultivating one’s chi, is engaging as well and I can’t wait to see Wu Ying grow in subsequent novels.

If I have a complaint at all, it’s that the novel doesn’t seem to have a strong ending. I don’t mean by this that the ending is bad. Rather, it feels like the story sort of stops. There is a kind of ending, but it does not feel like, as a whole, the novel built to that ending. It feels like the story had a natural point at which Wong could stop, and so he did. I could see this really bothering some folks. For me, it wasn’t a huge deal, though I do prefer my novels to have a bit more of a defined ending, or at least elements of the plot that get wrapped up in each book.

Tao Wong’s The First Step is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it to fans of the progression fantasy sub-genre. Even if you haven’t read any progression fantasy, this would be a good place to start, especially if you love stories set in ancient China! Filled with wonderful worldbuilding and an interesting main character, I think this one is sure to please fans of a number of fantasy genres. I can’t wait to continue the series.

8/10 A lot of fun and I highly recommend it to fans of the progression fantasy sub-genre

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