Based on the lives of the legendary Trung Sisters, Bronze Drum opens in 36 CE in a land of Viet people striving to keep their traditions alive under the piercing gaze of their Han (Chinese) oppressors. In the midst of tragedy, two sisters arise who gather an army of women to strike back against the Han men who wish to subjugate them. With the strike of the bronze war drum, the sisters, equipped in gold armor, sit atop their elephants and lead the Viet Nam women to war.
As characters are always referenced using full names (except within intimate settings) and with the larger character count in the second half of the novel, names are at times confusing. I often had to reference the glossary to clarify who was who as new people were introduced in the thick of battle. Occasionally, a more modern reference would slip into the prose (e.g., “pennywise”). Otherwise, the land and its different villages are well explored, from the skilled mountain-dwelling archers to the metal-workers of Nhat Nam and the palace of Cung Dien Me Linh.
However, the relationship, emotions, and trials of the sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, are always at the forefront of Nguyen’s story. The feats they accomplish for independence are inspiring, and I’m shocked to have never heard of these real-life historical figures before. The brutality of war and oppression, the starkness of the tragedies that occur—these are kept to a lighter tone, but the impact of these events is still powerful. This book feels unique on so many levels include setting, tone, and characterization. The story of these women’s lives is one that will stay with you, and I’ll definitely be recommending it to readers who love strong, complex, and battle-ready female characters.