I finally finished Journey to the West the other day. At over 3,000 pages across four volumes, it's quite a journey in and of itself. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.
This is a review of the novel as a whole. I might do something more specific at a later date.
The novel itself is basically two stories. First is the Rise and Fall of the Monkey King and the second is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures from Thunder Monastery.
The Rise and Fall of Monkey is like a Protagonists Journey to Villain. It starts off with Stone Monkey becoming the Handsome Monkey King and going on adventures to protect his kingdom from threats, up to and including death-by-old-age. Then he gets so full of himself he attacks gods and rebels against heaven. In the end this villain is defeated.
The plot is quick, fast paced and constantly escalates. The method by which Monkey becomes so powerful makes sense. The series of events that lead to him trapped under Five Elements Mountain is driven by character decisions. It can stand alone as a complete story. Naturally, Monkey fans want to see him get out from under that rock but it can stand alone.
The rest of the novel is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures. It has an interesting start. There's this Dante's Inferno thing as part of the set up and there's also how Xuanzang gets involved in the quest and then how he recruits his three disciples. Then it's basically filler until they reach Thunder Monastery.
The Pilgrims encounter demons that want to eat/seduce Xuanzang and Monkey has to rescue him. Usually, he has to seek help from other deities instead of simply smashing everything in his path. There's occasional variations, like helping a kingdom from an unrelated demon scheme, problems with humans, or a Broken Bridge.
I like the ending. It's a good ending, with closure and such.
Because there is No Antagonist, the only developed main characters here are the pilgrims themselves.
Xuanzang is basically a walking plot device because he takes no action other than starting the journey and placing the headband on Monkey's head. Monkey could jump back and forth between Thunder Monastery and Tang capital twenty times with ease but Xuanzang is mortal and cannot ride on clouds so he has to go the long and hard way. He gets captured to involve the Pilgrims in the affairs of demons along the way and insists on helping everyone (even if they're a demon in disguise), thus providing the excuse to delay the Journey.
If the other three characters in your cast are criminal demons, then it's necessary to have somebody like this but he could stand to be more like a true Good Shepherd and less like a jerkass.
Monkey is like a Trope Maker or something for general shonen anime heroes: he's rude, arrogant, and defeats enemies by beating them senseless with his superior martial arts but he is also driven by a kind heart that wants to protect his subjects. In addition, he is an old and cunning trickster. Many of his victories rely on sneaking around gathering Intel and then devising a strategy to overcome his opponent's advantages. He also knows more about Buddhist teachings than his own master, who was raised a Buddhist monk.
Pig is basically a sidekick type character. He makes wisecracks, helps the hero in small ways, and gets captured occasionally.
There isn't much to say about Friar Sand (or the dragon prince/horse for that matter).
When you're translating over 3,000 pages of Chinese into English, there's bound to be some typos. I only found a couple, which is admirable on the part of the translator.
Trickster Eric Novels gives Journey to the West a B+
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Click here for the previous book review (a review request): God's Forge