Tensorate #1: The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

Read: 13 February, 2018

I loved this story for all the things it does differently – for its setting, for its take on gender, for its take on homosexual relationships, etc.I just wish that the author had taken more time with it all.

This is a short enough story as it is, made even shorter as we are whisked along on a whirlwind tour of the first 35 years of Akeha and Mokoya’s lives. The scenes we are privy to are important, but so much of the character development happens off-screen.

This is a fantastic start, but the series needs a lot more exploration. I hope that there’ll be more details filled in by the sequels, because this story has a lot of potential.

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Sky Burial by Xinran

Read: 25 January, 2018

A fascinating story about a Chinese woman who heads into the Tibetan wilderness to find her lost husband.

While the book claims to be a true story (told by the main character to the author in the course of two days), this reads like fiction. True or not, or mix of both, I’m not sure it matters. It’s still a beautiful story, regardless.

The books main strength is in the way it conveys a sense of place – not just of the Tibetan plateau (though these were certainly the best bits), but also of the Chinese towns. With surprising economy of description, the author had me feeling transported.

There seem to be some political undertones, or at least a message. But while it does fudge over a lot of the truly horrific political events, I don’t think it’s nearly as pro-Chinese as some reviewers seem to have read it. There’s a sense of intrusion in the military presence in Tibet. And, while Shu Wen definitely seems to buy the party line at first about bringing civilisation to a backward land, she seems to learn a great respect for the traditional ways. So while there is, of course, some politics in a book about the ongoing Chinese/Tibetan conflict, I didn’t get the sense that the author was taking a strong side either way. As with most things, it’s complicated. And the picture we’re given in Sky Burial is nothing if not complicated.

I really enjoyed the friendship between Shu Wen and Zhuoma, brought together by their shared goal of finding their men. And the writing style was both poetic and vivid.

This is a very quick read, but a beautiful one.

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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Lady of Ch’iao Kuo by Laurence Yep

Read: 12 December, 2008

This book is part of Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series. I picked this book up at a second-hand sale my University was hosting. Having never heard of the author or the series, I was sold entirely by the cover art (which is absolutely beautiful and quite possibly the best part of the book – maybe I can just frame it?).

Overall, I found it to be an interesting read. The concepts of being forced to grow up and being responsible for many people despite having no experience kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, they weren’t really fleshed out. I also noticed a few continuity errors – for example, Redbird’s father decides that she will act as the translator when they talk to the Chinese, but then he goes to the Chinese without taking her along. This seems to happen for no reason other than to be able to kill off the father without having to hurt Redbird (or have her experience battle before the climax).

There were also some descriptions that may have been anachronistic, such as referring to the army as a “machine.” I’m sure they had machines of some sort or another back then, but would she have seen them? More importantly, would she have had enough exposure to machines to think of such a description? It’s a small detail, one that I might easily have passed over without noticing. It’s just that the book is so full with these little things that it bogs the story down.

Finally, I just felt that the author wasn’t very good at writing in the diary style. We’re never told why she starts writing the diary (something that modern little girls living in an age where paper and ink are both cheap and plentiful might not need a reason for). And then there’s the way she describes things… The narrative just feels very objective and detail-oriented, while perhaps missing some of the details that would have been important to her. It didn’t feel like a diary, but rather a third person narrative crammed into a first person diary format.

All that being said, I still finished it and I did still enjoy reading it. I just feel disappointed because the story deserved a much better treatment than it received.

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