Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation: Mo Dao Zu Shi (Novel)

Alt titles: Mo Dao Zu Shi (Novel), The Founder of Diabolism (Novel)

Vol: 4; Ch: 113
2015 - 2016
4.463 out of 5 from 2,491 votes
Rank #18
Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation: Mo Dao Zu Shi (Novel)

Wei Wuxian was once one of the most powerful men of his generation, a talented and clever young cultivator who harnessed martial arts and spirituality into powerful abilities. But when the horrors of war led him to seek more power through demonic cultivation, the world’s respect for his abilities turned to fear, and his death was celebrated throughout the land. Years later, he awakens in the body of an aggrieved young man who sacrifices his soul so that Wei Wuxian can exact revenge on his behalf. Though granted a second life, Wei Wuxian is not free from his first, nor the mysteries that appear before him now. Yet this time, he’ll face it all with the righteous and esteemed Lan Wangji at his side, another powerful cultivator whose unwavering dedication and shared memories of their past will help shine a light on the dark truths that surround them.

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Let me start off by saying I'm a fairly avid reader, and I've read a wide variety of genres and types of writing styles. The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is by far one of the best books I have ever read. It has a beautiful story that's both captivating and surprising. It never gets boring, the pacing is great, and the world is so complete and real it is bordering on Tolkien levels of detail and audience understanding. Its story is also very human, you can understand why all the characters due what they do, and each character-even the ones only there for two or three chapters-are fleshed out, they have personalities, ideals, flaws, and lives both before and after the story ends. The story itself follows a bright and powerful cultivator by the name of Wie-Ying, who wants nothing more than to live his life carefree and keep his family and loved ones safe. But as life often does, nothing goes according to plan and Wie-Ying ends up the greatest evil the world has ever known.  Overall I can't recommend this book enough, and even if you just like a good fiction story this is one of the best, and nothing I can say will do the actual book justice.  If you are having trouble finding the novel the amazing people over at Exiled Rebels did an amazing job translating and posting it in a format accessible by everyone. (Edit: they have even translated the side stories now!) Edit: This book has been officially translated into English, if you are able, I would highly recommend purchasing your own copy. 


Here I was expecting a spicy mystery plot with some BDSM CNC porn attached. This is the version mom had at home. (Spoilers ahead, you've been warned.)MDZS is a tepid, meandering and disjointed road trip story, served with a side of M/M smut roughly as lifeless as the corpses the protagonist manipulates. I refuse to call it romance, because as we will see in a minute, MDZS does not have anything even mildly resembling a coherent romance arc. Set in mystical ancient China, the oft-vaunted worldbuilding feels more a product of its adaptations than anything concretely laid down in writing. At best, tidbits of the setting raise more questions than they answer, but not in a way that makes one feel the author is aware of those questions and has something cool waiting for you. Attempts at narrative tension fall flat in the face of overbearingly powerful main characters, who spend most of the novel sleepwalking from location to location, blasting apart whatever cardboard opposition the author pulls from the aether. No matter how implausible or anticlimactic it might be to explain, which she does in patronizing levels of detail via lengthy infodumps, all of her narrative hooks come back to literally the same one/two bad apples. Worry not, gentle reader. In the world of MDZS, systems are not at fault for the failings of humanity. It is okay. You can go back to sleep once the bad man's rapidly cooling body is interred.I had always labored under the vague assumption that MDZS was MXTX's best work, having a rather poor impression of her political views in SVSSS and having already sampled TGCF's terrible pacing and characters, but now I've come to realize that almost everything I'd enjoyed about it was some form of adaptational change made in The Untamed or the donghua. Those strong and interesting female characters in the sausagefest world of chinese BL? Had their roles vastly expanded in The Untamed and are essentially disposable pawns in the novel. That ML with his gentle smiles and love of rabbits? Barely a character. A violent, rapey, childish asshole presented as the 'perfect lover' in the novel. It's tempting to somehow mentally backfill the many improvements into the original work, as some kind of headcanon on what MXTX 'really meant to do' or something, but I can't quite conjure the wishful thinking necessary. I've read enough of her works to know better by this point.That's not to say there's nothing to love, here. It was generally a good time whenever the Jiang siblings (particularly Jiang Cheng) were on page. Jin Guangyao manages to be remarkably adequate (and even iconic) for as little time as he gets to establish himself. Nie Huisang stands out as the most relatable, down-to-earth side character when he isn't busy manipulating a mentally ill gay man to his death, generally seeming just as tired with the stuffy, macho cultivator world as I was as a reader, even if the book never really covers what hidden depths he might have. It isn't pure misery porn, and it doesn't push the angst into melodrama. The small cast of the Yi City flashbacks were compelling as a standalone piece, too, with Xue Yang's response to his own lower-class victimhood (essentially declaring 'fuck cultivators, they're all assholes') being a real standout.Jiang Cheng, the protagonist's sect brother and childhood friend, is probably the best characterized of the bunch. His character certainly gets the most attention from the author, even if she spends just as much time disparaging him for being more flawed than her leads. Unfortunately, the narrative seems to have missed the part where those flaws are what make Jiang Cheng's complicated relationships with the rest of the cast such an interesting part of the book. He is, for better or worse, the only character who has some kind of personal involvement in just about every plot point in the book. If he isn't physically present for the events, then his presence is still felt either by being fierce (and sometimes abusive) uncle to the young Jin heir, Jin Ling, or by Wei Wuxian's memories of their tumultuous relationship. He even manages to inject some life into otherwise dead characters simply by being present in their vicinity, which is no mean feat for a novel featuring literal necromancy.You may notice that the main couple are nowhere to be found in this list of enjoyable characters. Yeah, there's a reason for that. Now, this isn't my first rodeo, and I've read enough self-insert stories when I was twelve to know when I'm looking at one now. Despite initially liking him well enough, our protagonist, Wei WuXian (henceforth WWX) gets increasingly treated as the moral centerpiece of the story, with the way the narrative frames a character being largely decided by how much they align themselves with him. If you like and trust that WWX is the good boy he says he is, you're good. Otherwise, prepare to be treated like ranting, nameless cannon fodder. WWX himself seems interesting as a grey, womanizing necromancer, but it is steadily revealed that these fun traits are false rumors, and he was always a vapid, virginal, misunderstood good boy (despite being responsible for thousands of deaths, largely through his own self-righteous incompetence).If you take WWX's aesthetic trappings at face value, you might come away with the impression of him being some kind of intelligent, proactive trickster archetype, but WWX spends most of the story mindlessly following a breadcrumb trail someone else engineered for him and falling ass-backwards onto narrative hooks that he is not emotionally invested in. If he needs to look smart, it's like everyone else suddenly takes a bunch of stupid pills. They start making mouth-breathing statements like 'WWX! You scum! Who are you to decide what's black and what's white!?' to which WWX responds, with maximum smarm, 'no u.' The only reason he survives this process without being sworded in the face is through the relentlessly indestructible hand of his love interest, Lan Wangji.Lan Wangji (henceforth LWJ) is a plank with a bank account and a raging hard-on. Much like a plank, he is rigid, in every way a man can be. His main personality trait is 'stoic'. His others are 'rich' and 'tall'. I guess he inherited his money, so he doesn't need to be kind, funny or creative. His nakedly apparent purpose in the narrative is to protect WWX from physical threats, dogs, and to get drunk in order to transform into his gropey alter ego whenever MXTX had a frisky moment during the writing process. The narrative tries very, very hard to make you think that he and WWX had some kind of enemies to lovers relationship in the past, but as with WWX's tortured trickster antihero schtick, the secret twist is that that their dynamic was never even half as interesting as that. Noticing a theme here? LWJ spends the majority of his time in the plot effortlessly deflating major threats into minor or inconsequential ones by being as close to this setting gets to a god of war. Thrill as he... reveals that writing combat is not the author's strong suit.The problem with LWJ is that he has no goals or motives or emotional connection or even fear of consequences for anything in the plot aside from WWX, and therefore has little to say to the characters he hangs around with. Otherwise, he is a loose collection of contradictory 'hot' traits, kinks and wish fulfilment. He is a nerdy, rule-abiding, upright and refined good boy with flawless cultivation technique. But that's boring and unsexy, so he's also a rule breaking, devil may care, physically threatening bad boy, whose technique is to sword things real hard. He is a violent and grim loner to the point of terrifying dogs on sight, with no personal connections, yet is respected and loved wherever he goes. He is slim and muscular and tall and dark and handsome, with a seemingly unlimited credit card, but nobody ever flirts with him, because that would be competition for WWX. He never loses a fight, ever, and any emotions he feels must be relegated to subtext, lest we develop too much empathy for him and he stops being a sex object.There's nothing wrong with him being wish fulfilment of a dommy man, per se, but LWJ is so threadbare otherwise that I can't help noticing when he's written solely to appeal to MXTX's libido. He was sort of cute as a teenager, back when he was allowed to become flustered without being perceived as weak, and therefore unsexy to the teen audience of this book, but he grew up into the most boring man alive. Popular headcanons such as him playing Inquiry for WWX's soul for thirteen years attempt to rescue him from the trash pile, but those were penned by writers with a far better grasp of romantic tension. We don't ever see snapshots of him pining for thirteen years, or trying alcohol to cope with grief - the alcohol motif is entirely wasted on comedy and teasing more lackluster noncon scenes when it could have been an emotional anchor for the couple as a whole. It is insane to me that we get so much material of LWJ drinking but neither he nor WWX have opinions on wine or drinking culture beyond 'Emperor's Smile b gud becuz Gusu is da best'. It's actually offensive, how often LWJ comes close to having characterization but draws back into blank nothingness. Mostly though, the man we actually get in the novel is so silent and expressionless that one can comfortably forget he is in the room, and since the author is unwilling to follow one of the many obvious roads-not-taken, I'd call that a blessing.Phew. Haven't talked about the juniors yet. Wish there was more to say about them, but their theme regarding parental figures not being perfect arbiters of justice does come off as a bit trite, to be honest. It's a theme that's at war with the aforementioned protagonist-centered morality, so it comes off as 'well, of course the juniors are in the right - they like WWX!' rather than any kind of coherent message about authority figures being flawed people. The authority figures hate WWX, after all, and that's an unforgiveable sin in this book.Jingye is the snarky one (greatly appreciated, if basic), Shisui is the boring one (no his reveal did not help there), and Jin Ling is the one with a personality (or he at least spends enough time in Jiang Cheng's AoE buff for some of it to rub off on him). Jin Ling was fine as the glue that binds the otherwise random plot together through his many uncles, but the one thing I remember being disappointing was the scene in which Jin Ling rebukes toxic masculinity and cries openly. This would be admirable and topical messaging, but I feel the author's clear discomfort with the idea of adult LWJ ever crying or showing vulnerability (which is always subtext lest he be seen as 'weak' and therefore unsexy) makes for a poor counterpoint, and undermines the message.If I failed to mention a character here, it's safe to assume I didn't care for them. I feel bad for Jiang 'Food Dispenser' Yanli and Wen 'Fridged Too Soon' Qing, but they're bit parts, treated as utterly disposable by the narrative, and if you want a version of MDZS with women who matter, you'll need to watch The Untamed instead. If I noticed anything about the way MXTX views women, it's very clear that whatever she thinks, women are explicitly separate from men. They are very much NOT combatants or equals in cultivation to men in her mind.The one exception, Madam Yu (WWX's adoptive mother), is framed by the narrative as a horrible, jealous, physically abusive harpy as recompense for her competence in battle and for being a woman who defies gender roles and prefers the company of women (cough). Her emotionally abusive, gaslighting partner is treated as a guy who is 'doing his best'. They're both abusive, but the framing is quite sexist. Thankfully, due to the dearth of feminine viewpoints in this novel, it doesn't come up as often as in other, similarly sexist chinese novels. Unless you count WWX as a woman, which... would be prescient of you, considering where this review is going.But speaking of 'womanly matters', let's talk romance. This is nominally a M/M romance book, after all. Imagine two drunk people at a club, sitting in a booth seat, away from the noise of the crowd. Both are drunk, and don't really know each other, but the drunk stranger next to them is hot and they're vibing in relative quiet. One of them gets a little frisky, 'loses control' of his 'masculine urges' and decides 'hey, what if I just... put my hand in his pants? What if I just DID that?' and then the other guy turns out to be drunk enough not to protest too much and they have relatively fulfilling, if boring, sex. That'd be fine. What makes it weird is when you put one of them in an enormous, impractical white dress. Mistletoe is hanging above the booth. An inexplicably present small boy carring a pair of rings on a pillow trips as he passes the booth, and now everyone's peering in, and one of their brothers is cheering them on, and the villain is giving them awkward looks as he fiddles around waiting for them to stop banging and foil his evil plan... and then the club miraculously converts into a conservative church scene and they get married ever after. That'd make the whole 'just vibing until we fuck' thing really weird and uncomfortable, right?Adjust for cultural signifiers of romance (red robes instead of a white dress, for example) and... that's MDZS's 'relationship arc' in a nutshell. It's a random events plot where any scene could happen at any time, but with a strange lack of simmering tension between the participants, usually requires one or both to be drunk for anything 'romantic' to happen, and someone ends up doing an allusion to marriage. There's no push/pull to their dynamic. WWX teases and... LWJ, blank-faced, pins him to the ground. Basically, WWX is a brat, and LWJ is too stupid and insecure to put him in timeout to get WWX to respect his authority, instead just giving WWX whatever he wanted. It's pretty sad. What kind of dom is that?Like, just make WWX a slinky powerbottom; he's clearly got a knack for tease and denial. And LWJ shrinks away and gets flustered and horny from it whenever the author forgets put him in macho chimp mode. LWJ, when he's allowed a glimmer of personality, reads as a man aching to get spanked for 'breaking the rules'. Then she remembers he's meant to be the dommy one and tries to course correct, because romance authors have never heard of the radical notion called 'being a switch'. Those 'Dom Wei Ying' moments were the few times when the romance actually seemed viable in this book as a perfect continuation of their teenaged dynamic, but it's clearly not what the author intended from the way she wrote this. She seemingly feels that WWX being submissive is so obvious that it requires no effort put into characterizing him to be so, even though that's not the character she ended up writing outside of select (and boringly mechanical) sex scenes. It's almost like she's a domme who likes telling quiet, macho men to fix her clothes and pay for her every want and need, but is in denial about it or something.Now, it's well established that BL relationships are often written using a heteronormative framework, with the 'bottom' acting in place of a woman, thereby allowing readers to explore hetero tropes without having to see a woman they identify with placed in threatening situations. Needless to say, the top/bottom = dom/sub equivalence present in BL is more accurate to heteronormative gender roles than anything most gay couples do, but that's beside the point. The point is that subtextually, WWX was always written as a woman, and gives up his signifiers of manhood past a certain point in the novel (cultivation, ability to physically fight), and only then is the romance arc allowed to progress into the physical.It's an interesting window into MXTX's conception of gay men. They're a disposable stand-in, a face for her to wear (much like WWX wearing the flesh of the genuinely queer, abused, voiceless and dead Mo Xuanyu) for her to explore her relationship to forceful but attractive men, and if you doubt me, read the sex scenes in MDZS and SVSSS and tell me how I'm wrong. I dare you. There is barely a pretense of WWX being male, and that pretense goes out of the window the second LWJ's penis is involved. What MXTX would have you believe is WWX's butt is referred to as a 'slit' multiple times, and becomes wet with arousal at one point in the extras. It is truly absurd. If you asked me, I'd say MDZS is the book where she grapples with whether she wants to dominate the dommy men, in defiance of gender roles (see also WWX's dream in the Incense Burner chapter where the roles are reversed, and he is happy), and eventually comes down on the side of wanting to be a submissive, if kinky, tradwife. All this to say... MDZS may be nominally about gay men, but it is far from a queer-friendly work. It is, at best, exploitative of queer people in the interests of exploring the fantasies of straight women, as is the case for most BL. At worst, it has some very nasty things to say about what acceptable victimhood looks like, if one compares WWX's treatment by the narrative to 'his' foils, Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao. It even at times seems to hint that homosexuality is a transmissable disease that WWX acquired from Mo Xuanyu.Ah, that got heavy. Let's talk about something a little lighter, like worldbuilding and narrative. Literally lighter, in this case, because the setting of MDZS might as well just be a group of people larping in a big field, in just about any country, and what details we do get are strange. Honestly, from what my partner has said about Naruto as a franchise, this felt more like that setting than anything ancient or chinese, which is interesting to me, as I know MXTX is a fan of Japanese properties like Thunderbolt Fantasy and other shonen fair. Why is JGY wanting to socialize cultivation through the watchtower system bad, again? Why do cultivators buy their swords from what seems an awful lot like a cultivation department store adjacent to Carp Tower? Who makes all that, and why are they not a political entity in and of themselves (thus mirroring the position of irl merchant classes)? What is blood magic, and why does blood seem to hold some special powers that are separate to cultivation? Is that demonic cultivation? Why are the Lan clan presented as simultaneously perfect and admirable, while also violently patriarchal and in many ways just as bad as the people the narrative presents as evil and worthy of contempt? Every time we'd go to read MDZS, we'd walk away with dozens of questions like this but also an ever-growing knowledge that none of them would ever be satisfyingly answered, because they're the background radiation of the book and MXTX seems blind to the implications there. MDZS is, in many ways, a book that constantly promises to come up with something, to say something, but always backs off to the safe and expected, or worse, nothing at all.This lack of cohesion is mirrored in the narrative. It's less an episodic series of arcs connected by a core mystery plot, and more like she had no idea how to get to her ending from her beginning, and sprinkled in oodles of her one-shot fanfics in the hopes of distracting us from the break point in the middle. That break point, by the way, can be traced by an abrupt jump in characterization from 'WWX is NOT into LWJ, no he isn't~' to 'WWX straightfacedly plans to marry LWJ at the family shrine', with seemingly no personal development or even internal thought on the matter. MXTX does seem to be reasonably good at writing one-shots. Yi City was definitely a stand-out part of the book precisely because it is very self-contained. But where Yi City connects to the rest of the narrative is clumsy and convoluted at best. Every plot point is like that. Good, or at least acceptable in a vacuum, but a tonally dissonant mess when placed next to one another.As a result, nobody really has a character arc over the course of the book, they just suddenly snap into the position the author needed them to be in for the next scene. The book flashes between past and present seemingly as an attempt to confuse the reader and thereby disguise the audible clunk where beginning and ending fail to meet in the middle. It seemingly serves no other useful purpose. A skilled writer, meanwhile, might have used this opportunity to recontextualize the characters in interesting and nuanced ways. Maybe develop them themes beyond 'don't judge a book by its cover' or 'maybe governments aren't always right', 'one person's hero is another man's villain'... God, really plumbing untapped depths there. Blue's Clues better watch their backs - MDZS's gunning for their target demographics. Where's the deep, masterpiece of angst that has people raving, or was that another adaptational choice made in the Untamed?What passes for a main plot, meanwhile, is a plodding fetch quest engineered by a background character, in which our hapless protagonists obediently follow a literal disembodied hand telling them where to go. After a spate of skyrim questing in the backwoods, and much flashbacking trying to convince us the skyrim questing was relevant, they wander back into the plot by happenstance just in time to hear about how all ills in their lives were cause by this one super nasty socialist guy.The reveal of said bad things being caused (implausibly) by this one bad dude does not happen naturally. It's a ginormous infodump that occurs in the last 10% of the book, and it's far from the only time MDZS's plot points are relayed to us in repetitive summary form. The writing style, while simplistic and easy to read as some have praised, often has this dreadfully patronizing tone to it where it will explicitly drop all pretense of being a story and tell you how you're meant to feel about a character, or drop a whole segment of exposition on you, then dissect its own subtext in front of you like you're five. '<Description of named character doing action.> Character name was doing <action> because he was feeling <Sad, etc>' is a common enough method of describing things to become extremely grating, even when a character's motivations are opaque enough that I feel it warranted an immersion-breaking explanation directly aimed at the reader.Interestingly, Jiang Cheng almost never gets this treatment, and he's notably the one character whose inner feelings are usually signposted by his body language or word choice without the didactic breakdown of exactly what the author wants you to think of him. Combined with her apparently unconscious motif of having JC be compared to her love interest, and the writing's unusual (read: the normal level of) subtlety regarding his feelings, and it really reads like JC has a massive crush on WWX. It does not seem to be intentional, but it's definitely funny, given JC was a much better developed character (and better love interest, particularly in the Enemies to Lovers sense and in terms of narrative tension) in every regard compared to LWJ.So essentially, we have a dull, uninspired setting, with an incoherent plot, flat, lifeless characters who we are actively discouraged from empathizing with, and a 'radical' message that involves killing the one bad apple and leaving the objectively terrible, dystopian values of the cultivation world completely unchallenged. It has threads of a thousand better novels in it, to the point where we spent most of our time reading it going 'Oh, if they'd done X instead, I would have loved that' or 'wow, WWX has so much weird chemistry with <character who is not LWJ>' or 'WWX totally should've spanked LWJ there' but none of it matters in the end. It's bursting at the seams with the implications of depth, but I think that if the author were aware of that, she would not have penned a work with such a profound lack at its core.It's fertile ground for fix-it fanfiction; for other, better writers to come along and reimagine the incoherent and broken elements of the setting, as we've seen with other heavily flawed series like Harry Potter, Supernatural and Naruto. It's like there's something about the incompleteness that calls to fans to fill that void with their own headcanons, and it's rather telling that The Untamed and the MDZS donghua made the adaptational changes they did beyond the obvious concessions to censorship. Sadly, to tell a coherent, impactful and well-paced story, something about the original clearly had to change.It will be interesting to see how this shapes the genre and whether MDZS stands the test of time in the wider public consciousness. It's clear that it has struck a chord with its core audience, who like the book for what it is well enough. If this is your first BL novel, or first big fantasy work, or other important firsts, it's going to feel fresh, and groundbreaking and like an undiscovered literary masterpiece. If it helped you, good, and I hope you will continue to explore other Chinese works. Perhaps some works by gay men and women, or works from other cultures in the M/M romance category, and broaden those horizons and such. I only hope said audience will, in time, be inspired to put just as much work into advocacy for the rights of real LGBTQ+ people across the world, as they did in heaping praise upon a work that kills us off and implies we're a contageous disease.

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