Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Orange, The Complete Collection #2 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 10 September, 2017

Finally, the finale of the Orange story! Orange only takes up about 2/3rds of the book, with the remainder being a filler short story called Haruiro Astronaut (no, as far as I can tell, the name doesn’t make any sense).

First, for the ending of Orange: The story ends satisfyingly. It’s a little abrupt, but it works. It ends at the moment when Kakeru stops thinking about how much pain his death will spare others, and starts thinking of how much pain his death would cause others. He’s still depressed, he still has an awful lot to work through (and I really do hope that he changes his mind about seeking professional/medical help), but that one little change is a profound one.

We never do find out how the future is changed by Kakeru’s survival – will he and Naho end up together? What will happen to Suwa? Will the friends keep in touch? But, in a profound sense, none of that matters. The fact that Kakeru will be alive already changes everything. And the rest is just… life.

There are a few things that have bugged me about the series. The first is, of course, Naho’s naivete. I realize that it’s meant to be the character flaw that she needs to overcome, but it just boggles the mind sometimes. How can she keep being shocked that Kakeru likes her when the letters have already told her, multiple times, that he does? Maybe it’s just a translation issue, or maybe it’s some cultural shorthand that I’m not getting, but it’s frustrating.

Given that mental illness is such a key part of the story, I wish that it were more responsibly handled. Only one character (Kakeru’s grandmother) brings up the idea that Kakeru might seek professional help. He gets angry, the issue is dropped, it’s never brought up again. I wish that, just once, his illness could be identified (especially since he seems to share it with his deceased mother). And while I’m not sure how well it would have worked with the story the author wanted to tell, I wish that treatment had been brought up in a better way. I wish that the recommendation to seek professional help had been echoed by Kakeru’s friends as well. I wish that it hadn’t just been dismissed as if it were a humiliating thing to do.

Lastly, part of me is rather uncomfortable with the way the whole friend group tip-toes on egg shells around Kakeru. His feelings are front and centre. And while it’s not like it’s his fault, all his friends act like victims of abuse around him. Their lives are utterly focused on him – on making sure that he’s always happy, on making sure that they never say anything that might set him off. Sure, they are getting good life experiences too, but that’s incidental. Everything they do, they do for him. I’m not sure how responsible it is to present a love story and model of friendship like that.

Especially in light of Harairu Astronaut. That story is kinda terrible. There’s an interesting story in between the lines about how the two sisters view their relationship, and the one sister’s fear of hurting men’s feelings leading her to agree to date anyone who will ask (a habit that is clearly presented as destructive).

It’s just that all the men in the story are absolutely trash. Yui is abusive – he orders everyone around, tells them what to do, demands that the women feed him, etc. Tatsuaki is a stalker. Natsuki is okay, but even he is forceful in his own way (and his arc seems to be to learn to be more forceful, rather than it being Yui’s arc to be less).

But there’s some odd sexual dynamics in the story that I wish were explored a little more. I’m not sure whether Yui and Natsuki are meant to be more than friends, but they do seem like it at times. There also seem to be hints that the twins would be open to being in a poly relationship with Yui together. And the final scene has Chiki holding Tatsuaki’s hand while Tatsuaki holds Natsuki’s hand.

Mostly, I feel a bit out of my depth with Haruiro Astronaut. I can’t tell whether the subtext I’m reading into it is meant to be there or not, and I feel like there is more going on than what I’m able to perceive.

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Orange, The Complete Collection #1 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 29 August, 2017

I picked up this book without realising that it was only the first volume. This, combined with the fact that the story really does seem on track to wrap up by the end, resulted in a very frustrated reader. But the next book is at least out already, so I haven’t fallen for that trap again.

This is a story about choices. The main character receives a letter from her future self warning her that one of her friends will die, and providing her with instructions to prevent that from happening. But while Future-Naho may believe that she has an accurate grasp of all the causal chains, there’s much that she can’t know even from her vantage point. Especially once the story starts to unfold differently as Naho makes different choices, and Future-Naho’s experiences become less and less accurate.

It’s a concept that’s certainly been done before (I grew up on Quantum Leap, and other shows like Early Edition have covered similar ground), so the story swims or sinks on the strength of its characters.

And I have to say that it does a pretty good job. Naho’s self-conscious naivete can be a bit annoying at times (especially when she keeps misunderstanding Kakeru’s expressions of love despite already knowing that he likes her!), but she has enough going for her not to cross the line into being unlikable. And whatever her flaws, they’re overshadowed by the interactions between the six friends.

The last thing I want to touch on is the pacing. I often complain that graphic novels move too fast – they race through plot beats without giving me enough time to really absorb the implications, or to get a sense of the characters by letting me see them to react to events. But Orange is a slow burn. Each event in the story is savoured, and the narrative meanders through the story at a leisurely pace. Characters have a chance to show me who they are, and their relationships have a chance to grow. It’s really quite refreshing!

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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

Read: 20 May, 2015

A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

Read: 10 March, 2015

During a terrible storm that forced the rest of his team to evacuate from the planet, Mark Watney – botanist and mechanical engineer – is left completely alone and under-supplied on Mars.

This book is Robinson Crusoe in space, complete with the lists, the problems, and the lengthy descriptions of the solutions. And it was fascinating. I wasn’t following a lot of the math and science, but I never felt like that was a problem as the narrator led me through it, and I’ve learned quite a few new terms/concepts.

At the beginning, I felt like the characterization was suffering. Much of the narration is written in a “comm chatter” style, where characters relate facts rather than feelings or personality. So early on in the book, I felt like the characters who were being introduced were unmemorable and interchangeable. Even Mark himself was just a guy doing things on Mars – the things happening to him and the things he was doing were all interesting, but he was not. However, as the book progressed, I felt like I got to know him better. I came to see how he would respond to stressful situations, I got to see how he was coping with the loneliness and the stress. Even the side characters started to seem familiar, and I was surprised by how recognizable they became even though they received so little narrative time.

The pacing of the narrative is incredible. This was the first time in a very long time – at least since I became a parent – that I just put everything else aside and read a book for eight hours straight. I was on the edge of my seat. I even started to get a stomach ache at one point because I was so tense. It was riveting.

There were a few minor issues. The biggest, and the only one really worth mentioning, is that the narrative style was a little inconsistent. There were two main styles: The first were Mark’s first person logs, chronicling his activities on Mars. The second were the third person narratives of all the other characters, both on earth and the other team members still on the Hermes ship. That was fine, and a good decision, I thought. However, toward the end, I counted two third person narrative sections following Mark. In both situations, I could understand why the choice was made (the descriptions were of things that Mark wouldn’t have described in his own logs). However, I did find it jarring, since it was a break in the established patterned. I think those two sections could/should have been integrated somehow into Mark’s log.

When I finish a book, I like to go online and see what other people have said about it before I write my own review. By far the most confusing/amusing review I found gave the book 2/5 stars based on the complaint that “the main character just comes across like a complete nerd.” Okay, yes. He’s a nerd. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and an astronaut. He’s going to talk about math and science a lot, and he’s going to crack nerdy jokes. If you hate nerds, this probably isn’t the right book for you.

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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Read: 6 June, 2014

Genghis Khan is frequently portrayed as a savage barbarian, the enemy of culture. Yet according to Weatherford, he gave power to his wives and daughters, and he installed a system of laws that were often quite progressive. In Weatherford’s narrative, it was the great Khan’s sons who initiated the Mongolian version of the “War on Women,” excising the mentions of their sisters’ deeds from the historical record, removing them from power, and collapsing the empire Genghis Khan had built. That is, until Manduhai saved it some 2-3 hundred years later.

I had already heard of Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess, but not have Manduhai, nor of the other ruling princesses and queens Weatherford mentions. I found their history extremely interesting, and I was glad to read a more nuanced account of Genghis Khan, as well. That being said, the Princesses Good / Princes Evil motif tried my patience.

I have also heard from someone who read Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that the princesses and queens who are so important and central to the history of the Mongol empire, are barely mentioned at all. I can’t confirm as I haven’t read it, but it just makes me angry that he would perpetuate the distinction between History and History With Women In It, even when those women take on masculine roles.

Same for his dismissive attitude toward those women who don’t cut quite an impressive figure as the hugely pregnant Manduhai riding into battle. For example, he describes the women of one period as “operat[ing] behind the scenes, making alliances, promoting heirs, fighting with co-wives and mothers-in-law, and pursuing the life of court ladies, who seemed so important to the political life of the moment but had minimal lasting significance on the rise and fall of empires” (p.126). As if putting someone on the throne could be dismissed as having “minimal lasting significance.”

The sense I got was that women were central and important when they ruled directly and rode into battle. Essentially, the influence of women matters only insomuch as it takes place within spheres that are so often considered masculine. This casual dismissal of “women’s work” irked me.

Still, it was an enjoyable and very readable book, and it was refreshing to see women discussed in relation to the Mongolian Empire (other than Borte). I wish that it could have been presented as more of a history with less opinion injection, but I haven’t seen another book that covers the same ground. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Read: 3 January, 2014

In 19th century China, two girls sign a contract, vowing to be friends forever. One is a low born girl on her way up in social standing, while the other girl moves in the opposite direction.

The story is brutal. From the very beginning, with its graphic and squirm-inducing descriptions of foot-binding, the narrative winds through a woman’s life as she tries to negotiate the competing needs of her friendship and her duty.

Some reviewers on GoodReads complained that the story is very “small.” And it’s true, it’s a story that is firmly fixed in the women’s sphere. It tells of a friendship between two women, of learning to deal with their mothers-in-law, of having children, of losing children. It’s certainly no epic. But at the same time, it was good to read a story with a female protagonist who struggles to make her way in her female sphere without longing to be a man.

Never does Lily desire to leave her little women’s room, never does she take an interest in politics, never does she care about what goes on beyond her room’s lattice windows. The “adventure” of the story is entirely wrapped in Lily’s place as a woman.

I found it to be well-written, thought-provoking, interesting, and entirely heartbreaking. I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty sniffly for the last 40 pages or so.

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Empress by Shan Sa

Read: 20 July, 2010

Empress Wu tells the reader about her childhood in one of China’s impoverished but still noble clans, growing up a concubine of the emperor, and finally of becoming empress herself. This is the story of a bird locked in a golden cage, of lavish surroundings that fail to mask captivity, of the boredom and murderous competition of a small city of women all fighting to win the gaze of a single man.

The novel’s protagonist, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight), is a fairly complex character who is not always particularly likeable. She is in survival mode; even when she rules as empress, she must contend with assassination attempts and the ever present threat of failing health. This is a novel about a woman whose entire being is tied to the approval of men, and the suddenness with which fortunes can change through factors entirely out of her control.

Sa did an excellent job of painting the picture of a world that is at once rich and beautiful, yet brutal and cruel. I found it to be an interesting and well-written novel. It’s an easy read, although not always a pleasant one. This is a great novel to read if you happen to come across it, though I wouldn’t bother going too far out of your way to get it.

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