These reviews actually include a mix of novellas, short stories, and novelettes, but I only mentioned novellas in the title for simplicity’s sake.
Many of you know that I adore Fantasy, I have since I was a child. But it was not until recently that I started exploring Fantasy written by a more diverse group of writers. And let me tell you what a wonderful and refreshing experience it has been! With a variety of voices comes a greater variety of different narrative styles and the stories they choose to tell.
With this post, and one in the future, I aim to explore Fantasy novellas and short fiction written by Asian women because there’s no shortage of it! I will of course aim to read full length novels by Asian women as well, but I wanted to try short fiction to get a broader sampling in a shorter amount of time.
I’m starting with 4 because it’s a manageable number for a mini-reviews post. Expect another 4 in the follow-post! Please recommend me more Fantasy novellas written by Asian women if you have any in mind.
The Lilies of Dawn – by Vanessa Fogg
Few books in my home library are as gorgeous as Vanessa Fogg’s novella, The Lilies of Dawn. Fortunately, its beauty goes beyond external aesthetics, and offers a magical and heartwarming story that earns my honest recommendation.
Imagine a wide and expansive lake covered entirely with bright pink water lilies as far as the eye can see. If you’re ever feeling stressed or anxious about something, just place yourself in this gorgeous lake and imagine rowing a canoe across its surface, reveling in the tranquility and occasionally stopping to smell the roses. Or the water lilies, in this case. Upon finishing the story, it was difficult for me not to imagine myself in such a placid and beautiful setting!
The Lilies of Dawn follows Kai, a young woman whose people have harvested the water lilies of the nearby lake for generations. They serve many purposes, but are often used to create remedies for fevers and general ailments. But for the last seven years, the demon-cranes, led by the Crane King, have come during harvesting season to feed on the nectar of the lilies and destroy future crops and regrowth. One day, a mysterious young and handsome doctor named Kevak appears and vows to work with Kai and her community to drive the demon-cranes away. Will they be successful? What secrets does does Kevak hold? You will have to read this delightful novella for yourself to find out!
I’m reviewing The Lilies of Dawn weeks after I read it. Thinking back on it now, I can only recall positive memories and feelings. Reading this novella put me at ease and in a blissful trance with writing that is lyrical and vivid. I wish I could have explored more of the world, but that is the nature of the novella. I’m getting used to accepting that some stories should be short, sweet, enjoyed in one sitting, and leave a lasting impression. In that regard, The Lilies of Dawn does not disappoint.
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers – by Alissa Wong
It’s difficult not to recommend this Nebula Award winning story! It’s a creepy and refreshing take on the vampire myth that’s unlike anything I’ve read before. The story is too short for me to give many specifics, but to give you a test of what to expect, I’ll say that the story begins with an ostensibly innocent first date. But quickly, we learn that these aren’t regular, mundane people. One of them can read minds, the other is a killer and the mind reader is not horrified by the vile thoughts crawling through and around the killer’s mind. Yes, the mind reader can literally see thoughts manifest themselves and crawl out of people! Things just get stranger and more mesmerizing as you read it, until the very satisfying conclusion that reveals this story is really about love and friendship. OK, it’s mostly about creepy vampire-like people who devour thoughts and people, but it also has a bit of heart hidden underneath all the creepiness. Also, it’s free! Go read it now!
The Terracotta Bride – by Zen Cho
What a gorgeous and imaginative story! This is the second piece of fiction I’ve read by Zen Cho, the first being Sorcerer to the Crown, and I am officially a fanboy and proud of it. This novellete is a beautifully-written story that mixes Chinese mythology, history, and contemporary culture to create a unique story-telling experience unlike any I’ve read before. It all takes place in hell, which is a fascinating setting on its own, but Zen Cho makes it even more interesting by rendering hell more mundane and bureaucratic than we’d expect. Social and class hierarchies are real and enforced in this version of hell. In the 10th court of hell, where the story takes place, wealthy spirits can bribe bureaucrats to prevent the torments of hell. Corruption is not limited to earthly realms.
The story initially centers around Siew Tsin, the second wife of the spoiled Jungshen, whose afterlife is made comfortable and opulent by his living descendants. They burn money and material goods as offerings for him to enjoy. But the heart of the story really revolves around the Terracotta Bride herself, Yonghua. She is Jungshen’s 3rd wife and is literally made out of terracotta! We soon learn that she’s very advanced technology and is extremely intelligent and lifelike in many ways. Meeting Yonghua will change Siew Tsin’s life profoundly, as well as her husband’s and especially the 1st wife, Ling’en. The mystery surrounding the terracotta bride’s creation and the bond she eventually develops with one of the other wives was a complete surprise to me! I don’t know about you, but when stories introduce queer romances I never expected, my immediate reaction is giddy happiness followed by an emotional investment to the story and characters. But don’t let my bias deter you from reading this story. The Terrocotta Bride is a great story and in addition to having a great plot and characters, it also poses meaningful questions about existence, life and death, love, and filial piety.
Hammers On Bone – by Cassandra Khaw
This Fantasy novella is set in London and stars detective John Persons, who provides narration in his very old-fashion style that contrasts with the modern setting of the story. Persons was hired by a 10-year-old boy to kill his stepfather, a man named McKinsey, because the boy suspects there’s something wrong with him, something monstrously wrong. But Persons may or may not actually be a “person” himself, and we soon learn that he is aptly suited to hunt a bounty like McKinsey.
I previously mentioned that Persons narrates the novella and I do want to point out that his narration may initially be a bit jarring to readers. His language is anachronistic, as if he lived in the 1940s, and it is not at all attuned to modern sensibilities. It is especially noticeable when he refers to women, often using terms such as “bird” and “skirt.” Cassandra Khaw certainly does an excellent job putting the reader in the mind of this very old-school and very traditionally masculine man. He’s not necessarily likable (I did not find him so), but he’s undeniable interesting, mysterious, and competent as a private investigator. The story itself is entertaining, creative, and twisted. The climax is gory, horrifying, and Lovecraftian, as one would expect from the book cover. Tentacles and ancient ones abound!
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