I spent 5 hours reading the entire first volume of I Shall Seal The Heavens. I think of it as time amazingly well spent.
I think that the main joy of the Xianxia genre (besides magic bolts and watching arrogant asses get trumped by someone of a higher power level) is perspective. Xianxia works, with their meticulously charted power levels and rising levels of epicness, are works that can best invoke that “how did I get here feeling”.
I’m talking about the feeling where the protagonist is a small pip-squeak student in chapter 1, and by chapter 90 or so, he’s a guy that’s slinging around 500 flying swords. By book 6 he’ll probably be a close to Immortal level being that can destroy mountains with his fist.
The problem would be that the increase in perspective isn’t pegged to anything in particular. The general motions are still basically the same. All you’re doing is changing the size of the weapons and the scope of the personnel involved. The character undergoes changes, but these changes are the expected “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” psychological changes.
I can come up with a few alternate plots from that premise. I don’t know if they’ve been done before though.
The first would be what I call the ‘Reverse Shounen’. Basically, it is about a God falling lower and lower and giving away his powers to help various people until he finally has to fight a one-on-one battle in an alleyway with rusty knives, and it’s the absolute hardest and most exhilarating battle he has in the world.
The second would be what I call the ‘Xianxia Dictator’, which is where you have the first part play like a normal Xianxia novel, and then when he reaches Immortality, you perspective-swap to a normal mortal character having to live under his powers, and then you create a parallax by having the genre shift from that kind of easy escapism to really tooth and nail realistic hardcore battles.
These are merely novel premises. But they can be utilized to create greater meanings if you can balance the characters, setting, and prose with the themes.
The best aspect of Xianxia works would probably be the complete artifice. It doesn’t care about crafting an entire culture from ground up or building too detailed a setting. There is also little sense of time and place, and people seem to be flying through some kind of mountain or forest most of the time. It doesn’t conjure a setting until the plot requires it.
I wish that certain SF or Fantasy authors were less anal about their need to world-build, and cared more about the forward momentum of the plot, as well as the character interactions. After all, setting and ideas are kind of dead if they aren’t explicated in a way whereby a consciousness can interact with them.
Of course whether one CAN do that is a completely different matter altogether, but if you can’t, then you can just take 5-6 character axioms from Chekhov or some psychological short story writer and stick it into some character. At the very least, that’s a lot better than taking character ideas from overused stereotypes.
For example, one of Chekhov’s short story, the Two Volodoyas – involves a heroine, childhood friend, and one more guy. The childhood friend is called Little Volodoya while the other guy is called Big Volodoya. And the heroine is going to marry the more mature Big Volodoya rather than Little Volodoya. That already sets up a total Anime Light Novel character trio + NTR.
But since Chekhov is such a psychologically penetrating bastard, the story is anything but a normal love triangle. In fact, the two Volodoyas are the ones who profit more than the heroine by the end. Both Volodoyas are womanizers that get along really well.
During the story, she vacillates between loving Big Volodoya for his maturity, and Little Volodoya for his handsomeness. She falls into an affair with Little Volodoya in the end, and he negs her, treats her like a child, and tosses her aside casually after he’s done with her. She falls into ennui and self-depreciation while both Volodoyas “spent hours playing billiards and picquet”. All this is mixed up with a stunning Christian philosophy and poesy.
In other words, it’s an ‘NTR’ (or even a double-NTR) story where no male gets screwed and the heroine internally implodes for being ‘in love with falling in love’ (which is more nuanced than the masochistic fantasies of NTR stories). More importantly it’s about exploring the vicious psychological cycles that people will fall into, and the self-justifications they give themselves.
This story of a few pages has enough character material to create a screwed-up romantic character base. If you stuck supernatural elements, you could turn it into a Bakemonogatari style character exploration. If you threw in a murder mystery you could have a penetrating examination of passionate crime that no one has ever really done before. If you threw it into a high school setting with more jokes and adolescence and characters, you could turn it into a full fledged RomDrama. Yet people will always draw their character ideas from silly fantasies or well-worn stereotypes – even though Chekhov managed to make a masterful sketch of this kind of Romance waaay before stuff like White Album 2 could come out. Steal from the greats y’all! Don’t think you can beat them until you understand them first!