Category: LGBTQIA+

She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

ISBN 9781250621801

“They were two things of the same substance, their qi ringing in harmony like twin strings, interconnected by action and reaction so that they were forever pushing and pulling each other along the path of their lives and towards their individual fates.”

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother after bandits steal the last of their food, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery when Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place.

She Who Became the Sun is a loose historical fantasy set in the transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming, in the mid-1300s. After nearly a century of foreign rule, the Mongol grasp on China is slipping, with famine and peasant revolts fueling the belief that the Khans have lost the right to rule, known as the Mandate of Heaven. The subtle fantastical elements are drawn from Chinese mythology and folk belief, including Zhu’s ability to see the hungry ghosts that linger in the human world after death.

Zhu Chongba’s chief antagonist, General Ouyang, has something of the stereotype of the devious, scheming eunuch who is preoccupied with what has been stolen from him. For many years he has bided his time as the most capable general of the Prince of Henan, serving the very Mongol overlords who executed his family to the ninth degree, and ended his family line by castrating him. He has fought alongside the Prince’s eldest son as his brother in arms, and his accolades surpass those of the younger son, an embittered scholar who prefers to serve as the province’s chief accountant and administrator. Despite my initial reservations, I found Ouyang to be a complex and fascinating character even in his villainy, particularly when set alongside Esen and Lord Wang to show the different facets of (toxic) masculinity in this world.

Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are grappling with the tension between what they believe to be their immutable fates, and the evidence that they might have agency over their own destinies. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. Yet Zhu struggles to accept those strengths, worrying that to draw upon them is to attract the attention of the heavens, and have the gods realize that an imposter has slipped into Zhu Chongba’s shoes. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

General Ouyang, on the other hand, believes that his is a fate that has always been waiting for him, from the day that the Mongols killed his family. It was a slumbering but inevitable giant, waiting to be roused, and it is Zhu Chongba who has awoken it. For Ouyang—who is more than a little in love with Esen, eldest son of the Prince of Henan—this is an unforgivable catalyst that will harm the only person he cares about. What he fails to realize is that it is his own shame and self-hatred that is the true root of this destruction. His love for Esen is both humanizing and tragic, poisoned as it is by his preoccupation with fate and vengeance.

I was drawn to this novel expecting a Chinese historical fantasy, but in the end the aspect of the story that grabbed me and would not let go was juxtaposition between Zhu and Ouyang, two gender nonconforming characters who recognize one another as being “of the same substance.” They can each see things that the people around them miss with their binary view of the world, but still differ in their ability to accept the ways in which they themselves do not fit in. She Who Became the Sun has a satisfying arc for a single novel, following both characters to pivotal moments in their narrative, but I am also tremendously looking forward to the planned sequel. In addition to following Zhu and Ouyang to their fates, I am particularly hoping to see further development of Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a disgraced Red Turban warlord who marries Zhu after her fiancé also falls from grace. Unfortunately, the sequel currently has no confirmed title or release date.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who chose to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

“The space between two shores is the ocean and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.

The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.

"I'm always a little lost these days. There was a time when I knew exactly where I was supposed to go."

Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.

Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Cover image for Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier with art by Val Wise

by Crystal Frasier

Art by Val Wise

Lettered by Oscar O. Jupiter

ISBN 9781620109557

“The team is great. They’re the only people who really stuck their necks out for me last year when I came out. But sometimes they’re so eager to prove how much they support me that they don’t listen to what I want.”

When the guidance counselor tells Annie and her mom that she needs some additional extracurricular activities to round out her college applications, Annie is less than thrilled when her mom pushes for cheerleading. Grumpy and unsociable, Annie feels like the exact opposite of a peppy cheerleader. Worse, her past behaviour has alienated more than one member of the team. But her former friend Bebe pushes for the squad to give Annie a chance, the same way they gave Bebe a chance when she came out and transitioned last year. With Bebe and her friends, Annie learns how to be part of a team, and file down some of her sharper edges and defensive impulses. As the two girls repair their friendship, they discover that they may have other feelings for one another as well.

Much of the story in Cheer Up has to do with the different ways in which the people in Bebe’s life support her in the way she needs, or fail to. Bebe’s parents are tentatively supportive of her transition, but they don’t understand that transitioning is literally saving her life. “They think of me transitioning as a luxury. And they’re worried it’ll distract me from getting good grades and getting into college,” Bebe explains to Annie as the two are reconnecting. Meanwhile, the cheer team is almost too supportive in certain ways, sometimes failing to listen to Bebe’s preferences, like the fact that she doesn’t want to run for homecoming queen. Annie has to find her own position in Bebe’s life, and strike the right balance when her combative nature clashes with Bebe’s tendency to go with the flow and pick her battles carefully. Annie has never stepped down from a fight in her life, and their two personalities make a great contrast.

I initially missed the memo about this being a love story, despite the subtitle, and thought that this story would be about repairing Annie and Bebe’s past friendship. Bebe and Annie used to be friends, and we’re never told why they no longer are at the start of the story. It seems that their falling out happened a couple years ago, whereas Bebe’s transition happened the previous year, so the two events do not appear to be directly related. The story does not delve into what led to the rift, or addresses how it might impact their romantic relationship moving forward. However, I loved the way Cheer Up addressed Bebe’s uncertainty about her sexuality—something that had been on the backburner in the midst of her transition—and her worries about how being openly trans might play into the way potential romantic partners perceive her.

The sweet and hopeful nature of the story is complemented by bright, full-colour illustrations by artist Val Wise that really made this graphic novel a joy to read. If you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt read that handles serious issues with a light hand, check out Cheer Up.

MXTX Mini Reviews

Today I’ve got three danmei (m/m romance) novels by Chinese writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX), recently translated officially into English for the first time. All three are also xianxia, a Chinese fantasy genre where the characters cultivate near-magical abilities through meditation or other practices that allow them to direct their life force. One of these novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is the source material for the popular television series The Untamed on Netflix, starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Originally published as web novels, they’ll debut in English in multiple installments over the next year, so I’ve covered the first volume of each here.

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation

Cover image for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 5

ISBN 9781648279195

“No matter how thoroughly Lan Wangji was praised as an unrivaled rare beauty, nothing could help the fact they he looked profoundly embittered, as if he had lost his wife.”

Once deemed one of the most talented young cultivators of his generation, Wei Wuxian met a tragic end after he deviated from the orthodox path and invented demonic cultivation in order to put an end to an otherwise unwinnable war, only for his allies to turn against him when peace was achieved. When he is unexpectedly reborn thirteen years later in the body of an abused young man named Mo Xuanyu, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery that has unexpected connections to unfinished business from his first life. To solve the case, he’ll need to work with Lan Wangji, with whom he has a tumultuous history. But unbeknownst to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has many regrets about not standing by Wei Wuxian the first time around, and he won’t allow this second chance to slip away. Mysteries and politics abound, but the real draw here is the complex relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. As a self-sacrificing character who is often oblivious to others’ regard for him, Wei Wuxian becomes absorbed in the mystery, refusing to allow himself to confront his feelings for Lan Wangji, or accept that they may have been reciprocated all along. As they work together to solve the mystery, incidents from their past are slowly revealed, eventually forcing a reckoning between the two.

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System

Cover image for The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 4

ISBN 9781648279218

“Dying for Shizun or dying together with Shizun, either one is something this disciple will gladly do”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s first novel, The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, has a more humourous tone than her other works. In many respects, it is a satire of a certain type of web novel. Shen Yuan is an avid reader of such stories, and he dies cursing the terrible writing of Proud Immortal Demon Way by Grandmaster Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky (a pen name like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). He awakens within the world of the novel, having being transmigrated into the role of Shen Qingqiu, the evil master of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s protagonist, Luo Binghe. In the original novel, Shen Qingqiu meets a terrible fate. If Shen Yuan wants to survive, he’ll need to find a way to avoid becoming the antagonist. However, he is bound by certain rules of the System, a video game-like structure that governs the changes he is trying to make to the plot of the novel in order to save himself. This book is cracky, snarky, meta, weird, and deeply fannish as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu skewers tropes and upends clichés. The new Shen Qingqiu bumbles through, never realizing that Luo Binghe’s feelings for him are more than a disciple for his master. After all, in Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe always gets the girl. Shen Yuan is just hoping not to end up dead.

Heaven Official’s Blessing

Cover image for Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 8

ISBN 9781648279171

“On the night of Zhongyuan Festival, sometimes when people strolled they might discover a road that never existed before. Such a road should never be taken, because if they walked the wrong one, they would enter the Ghost Realm and never return.”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s most recent novel is also her longest, with a projected eight volumes for this English translation. It’s perhaps no surprise then that I felt this first volume was a bit of a slow start, mainly serving to introduce the vast array of characters. We meet Xie Lian, former crown prince of the lost kingdom of Xianle, when he ascends to the Heavenly Realm for the third time. While it isn’t unusual for a god to fall from grace, to fall and then rise again not once but twice is not just unusual but laughable. Xie Lian is known among the other gods as the Laughingstock of the Three Realms. When his third ascension destroys the palaces of two other heavenly officials, he must descend to the Mortal Realm to investigate a case in order to earn merits to repay his debt. Along the way he encounters San Lang, a mysterious youth who seems to be unusually knowledgeable about everything and unperturbed by even the most unnatural events. If you enjoy novels about gods behaving badly, the officials of the Heavenly Realm are no better behaved than the Greek gods. Shenanigans are afoot, and Xie Lian is about to drag his own messy history right into the middle of the heavenly politics he has spent the better part of eight hundred years trying to ignore.

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Across the Grass Green Fields (Wayward Children #6)

Cover image for Across the Grass Green Fields by Seanan McGuire.

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213594

“Regan had known from the beginning that Laurel’s love was conditional. It came with so many strings that it was easy to get tangled inside it, unable to even consider trying to break free. Laurel’s love was a safe, if rigid, cocoon.”

Regan Lewis only ever wanted to be normal. Unfortunately for her, fate had other plans. Knowing that there is nothing but social ostracism waiting for her back at school after she reveals a secret, she find her doorway to the Hooflands, a realm of unicorns and centaurs perfect for a horse girl like her. But when humans come to the Hooflands, it means something is coming, something that requires a hero. And it is very useful for heroes to have thumbs and fit into small spaces, after all. But the centaur herd that finds Regan looks at her and sees a child, not just a human hero. And so they decide to keep her safe for as long as they can, until her quest presents itself.

Across the Grass Green Fields is part of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series in that it involves a child going through a doorway to a fantasy world. However, it stands apart in that Regan neither starts nor ends at Eleanor West’s school, and meets none of the series’ recurring characters along the way. It has been suggested that you could reasonably start here rather than with Every Heart a Doorway, but that would mean missing out on a lot of the interconnected structure and logic of the portal worlds. The series is in many ways cumulative, and even entirely separate stories are in conversation with one another.

One of the striking things about this series is that McGuire writes like an adult who remembers childhood viscerally. Not just the fun and the magic, but the vulnerability and confusion, the casual cruelty and fickle whims. The most compelling part of Across the Grass Green Fields is perhaps what Regan goes through before she finds her door, not the adventure that she discovers beyond it. Regan’s playground friendships are fraught, clearly depicting the “strange feuds, unexpected betrayals, and arbitrary shunnings” that many adults seem to have forgotten. In this it reminded me of the complex friendship depicted between Lundy and Moon in the fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream.

Regan is a people-pleaser, and the only thing she dares to claim for herself is her love of horses. It is not so strange as to get her ostracized by her peers, an acceptable obsession for girls. In everything else, she bends to the whims of her dictatorial best friend Laurel, and tries not to completely lose herself. When Laurel ostracizes their mutual friend Heather for not being the right kind of girl, Regan choses Laurel without hesitation. It is not until Regan finds her door, and meet the centaur girl Chicory that she discovers a friendship that gives and takes in equal measure, and demands that neither party give up parts of themselves for the sake of the other.

Regan’s quest comes late and fast, and is in some ways anti-climactic to the rest of her adventures. She has experienced much of her personal growth in the Hooflands long before she goes to the palace to meet the Queen. This is simply where she proves that she has learned what the Hooflands had to teach her about friendship, destiny, power, and the importance of being yourself.

You might also like Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780451487995

“Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side. But you had to die before you could be reborn.”

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business with a local gangster turned real estate developer who plans to tear down the god’s temple to build a condominium tower. She has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her get her revenge on the developer and save the temple. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly.

The story begins with the family returning to Malaysia, and Jess’s time in America quickly begins to feel like a different life. Although Jess is in a long-distance relationship, we do not learn much about her time with her girlfriend. Soon, she begins “to feel like she’d made Sharanya up, like she’d never had a girlfriend at all.” This serves to characterize how all-consuming Jess’s situation in Penang has become, but it also leaves the reader with minimal investment in the relationship when Jess’s erratic behaviour begins to cause some strain between them. Sharanya feels even less real to the reader than she does to Jess. Ultimately, however, this is a story that is more about family and history than romance. Jess’s mother has never spoken much about her family, and that silence contains a vast sea of omissions.

Jess has an American brashness about her that quickly gets her into trouble as she tries to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Penang, where bribery and corruption run rampant, and seemingly upstanding businessmen often have dark pasts. Even a simple mechanic can be more than he seems, as Jess discovers when she learns that her mother’s brother is also a spiritual medium, a dangerous and not necessarily lucrative lifestyle. Opposition to the impending condo development lands her uncle first in the hospital and then in jail, and Jess faces multiple beatings and an attempted rape as she becomes more deeply involved in Ah Ma’s vendetta. Through dreams and memories, Jess also shares in the experiences of her grandmother’s hardscrabble life, and the short life and violent death of the woman who would become the blood-thirsty god known as the Black Water Sister.

The standout character of this story is one who is dead before it even begins. Jess’s maternal grandmother Ah Ma has a sharp tongue and a steely core. She is a woman who lived a hard life, and the pragmatism that necessitated has followed her into the afterlife. A little thing like death is not going to keep her from exacting her revenge on Ng Chee Hin or saving the temple from his greed. Ah Ma can also be surprisingly funny. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?” Ah Ma says dismissively when Jess interrogates her about what measure of privacy she can expect when she’s being haunted, and why Ah Ma doesn’t know everything that is going on around them. If you enjoyed characters like Mak Genggang in Cho’s previous work, Sorcerer to the Crown, Ah Ma is cut from similar cloth and has a commanding presence in the story. Powerful, complicated, and determined, she is forced to contend with a granddaughter who has all the same capacities but not necessarily the same priorities.

Black Water Sister is a truly standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission as much as with the gods before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malindo Lo

ISBN 978052555261

“Lily understood why her mother had worn the church dress to Macy’s. Even if it was ugly, it declared her investment in respectability. Her mother was a real American wife and mother, not a China doll in a cheongsam, relegated to operating the elevator.”

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily begins to question more deeply, and to find the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club begins with a series of small moments in which Lily realizes that she is different from the girls around her who are beginning to date boys and compete the Miss Chinatown beauty pageant. When Lily discovers a lesbian pulp fiction novel in a rack at the drug story, it opens a world of possibility to her that she could hardly have imagined alone. It is through the medium of the book that she dares broach the subject to Kath, and through Kath she finds access to the world of the Telegraph Club. Even though they are both minors, Kath has been there before with an older friend, and knows how to obtain a fake ID for Lily.

Through the club, Lily and Kath meet older lesbian women who are regulars there. Though the city’s queer night clubs have a less than savoury reputation—sometimes deserved, sometimes demonized—they are also places where the girls can catch glimpses of future lives for themselves they never would have dreamed possible, including long-lasting partnerships. However, the older women are also limited in their ability to help girls who end up in trouble with their families if their secret comes out. The threat of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” looms over them, even if they are supposed to enjoy freedom of association according to a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling.

The story is told entirely from Lily’s point of view, so there are large swatches of Kath’s experience we do not get to delve into when they’re not together. This is particularly noticeable in the last quarter of the novel. But though Kath and Lily have much in common, their stories are not the same. Chinese Americans face a double burden of racism and suspicion of communism as the new communist government takes hold back in China, but goes unrecognized by the American government. When Lily’s father refuses to name one of his patients as a known communist, the FBI confiscates his immigration papers, leaving him with no proof of his legal status in the United States. “My parents lectured me for half an hour about how the government would put us in camps just like the Japanese if they thought we were Communists,” Lily’s friend Shirley Lum explains after Lily and Shirley attend a picnic that turns out to have been hosted by suspected communist sympathizers. There are many ways in which Lily’s experience of the queer community is not quite like Kath’s, including people repeatedly calling out her race and asking her if she speaks English.

I purchased this novel on pre-order more than a year ago, but put off reading it for a long time because I suspected it would be a bit of a darker or heavier read. It recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, reminding me that I really wanted to get around to it. I found it open-ended but hopeful, and not nearly as grim as it could have been despite the subject matter it deals with, including racism, homophobia, interracial relationships, and McCarthyism. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values of your family and community that you have been taught to hold dear. But at the core it really is a story of first love even in the face of adversity. In Kath, Lily finally finds someone who sees her, and who understands her love of math and science fiction, and her dreams of outer space.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is based on a short story originally published in 2018 in the collection All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell. Set in San Francisco, Malinda Lo describes the city in detail, but relies heavily on street names. This is useful if readers want to consult a map, but doesn’t do much to evoke the atmosphere of the place. What she does much more successfully is delve into San Francisco’s queer history, while also attempting to bring to life the largely undocumented history of the Asian American women who found their way into the predominantly white spaces of San Francisco’s lesbian community.

Also by Malinda Lo:

Ash

Adaptation

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