Benjanun Sriduangkaew has been one of the writers that, in the past year, has basically exploded into ubiquity amongst the more progressive parts of the genre scene; unfortunately, that hasn’t gone alongside the sale of a novel (yet), and while novellas and novellettes have earned her a place on the Campbell shortlist, they… don’t tend to come with blurbs. So, we’ll start this review with a summary!
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon was published by Ann Leckie in Giganotosaurus in their November 2012 issue. It is, as the title implies, somewhere between a reinvention of an old myth-type – the romance doomed never to be fulfilled, between an avatar of the Sun and one of the Moon – and a whole new mythology itself; replacing the generally-straight couple with women, taking a fictional Oriental-inspired(?) setting and indeed drawing on homophobia for a plot element, Sriduangkaew refreshes the myth in her retelling, the combination of innovation and tradition creating an interesting story.
As a presentation of a queer relationship, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is rather beautiful; Sriduangkaew doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of a queer life, no least the prejudice and refusal to accept it as valid of those around one (both gods and mortals seem to take the view that homosexuality is abnormal or simply nonexistent, an odd take given the genderfluid nature of the gods). However, she also doesn’t try to minimise the humanity, sexuality or romance of a queer relationship; Houyi and Chang’e are a real couple, who don’t always get on perfectly, who have to deal with people outside their relationship and their problems, but who also revel in each others’ company and are both emotionally and sensually connected. Sriduangkaew writes one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve ever read, and it’s a really refreshing read to see one so happy, too!
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is not, of course, without conflict. Much of that is driven by Houyi’s refusal to bow down to normal social convention and gendered activities; she is an archer and refuses to be second to anyone or to pretend to be anything other than a woman who is the best archer there is, and that – along with her spurning of the advances of various male gods – leads to her downfall. But Sriduangkaew doesn’t let the reader think the downfall is her fault; rather, it is the fault of those who cannot accept that Houyi isn’t interested in them romantically, and in those who think it is better to force a woman into a social box into which she doesn’t fit than to change the society. On those terms, Houyi is a fascinating character study of a woman in conflict with her society.
As a retelling of the old myth, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is perhaps inevitably an unsurprising tale; but at the same time, Sriduangkaew adds some twists of her own (including one recognisable from the Pirates of the Caribbean use of the same trope), not least her setting. This novella is set in a lush, rich, beautifully portrayed and living setting incorporating gods and mortals into a society and cosmology very heavily reminiscent of the Chinese Imperial belief system; and the way the myth makes use of that setting is fantastic, with place and culture both forming a part of and irrelevant to (in different ways) the characters’ lives and relationships.
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is the first work by Benjanun Sriduangkaew I’ve read, but it makes me want to seek out more of her work and preferably a novel; if this is her general standard, it’s no wonder she’s made the Campbell ballot.