Book Review

Bronze Drum

Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War

  • Author: Phong Nguyen
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, violence, blood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Gather around, children of Chu Diên, and be brave. For even to listen to the story of the Trung sisters is, in these troubled times, a dangerous act.

In the Lac Viet region of ancient Vietnam, two noble daughters fill their days by training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, free-spirited and fierce Trung Nhi is more interesting in spending time in the gardens and with her romantic conquests. 

But these sisters’ lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. As the people’s frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war. When the Trung sisters’ father is executed, their world comes crashing down. With no men to save them against the Han’s encroaching regime, they rise and unite the women of Vietnam into a powerful army.

Bronze Drum is based on the true story of the Trung sisters, shared down through generations for thousands of years, about these warriors and champions of women and Vietnam who heralded a new period of freedom and independence.

Historical fiction is such an intriguing genre for me, and I always love to learn more about the history from regions that I don’t know much about. In the American school system, we learn basically nothing about Vietnam outside of the Vietnam War, which is only glossed over briefly, so the premise of this story was fascinating. 

Discovering that ancient Vietnam had a matriarchal society was so interesting, as well as how deeply their society was changed by Han Chinese rule into a patriarchal society ruled by Confucianism, and Vietnamese beliefs and practices were outlawed. The emphasis on daughters being trained as warriors went hand in hand with their freedom to have sexual partners of their choice and having a say in who they could marry, and whether they wanted to marry at all. But as the daughters of an influential lord, the Trung sisters had less of a say under Han rule. 

However, I struggled with this book for a few reasons. First and foremost, as someone who isn’t familiar with the Vietnamese language, I struggled a lot with pronunciation, since so many of the diacritical marks used throughout the story were completely unfamiliar to me. In a fortunate twist, I got this book just as it was released, and I was able to access the audiobook through my library, which was so helpful to me in ensuring that I understood the proper pronunciation of character names and places in the story (which wound up being nothing like the way I was reading them from the book). That’s more of a “me” problem than an issue with the book, though. I did find that there was a lot of telling rather than showing, and the characters read as rather flat. I struggled to connect to the characters, since their personality characteristics were boiled down to the basics: Trung Trac is the dutiful and wise older sister who is devoted to doing right by their parents, while Trung Nhi is the wild child younger sister who is more headstrong. We don’t really get to know them as people, and it’s more of a narration of events. Instead of being a strong story where we can get invested in the character arcs and tension as they move through the story, it’s a slow-paced progression through events like a historical essay.

Their story was absolutely legendary, and I can see how this would be a tale passed down through the ages. It’s the kind of thing that would be a perfect example of Vietnamese resistance to oppressive rule, as well as the incredible resilience and strength of the Vietnamese people. It doesn’t hurt that as a female-led revolution that was wildly successful for the most part, it is inspiring, and I loved how it ended.

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