Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal, Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.
If there are two themes that seem to run across Benjanun Sridungkaew’s impressively broad, stunningly well executed ouevre so far, they are love and humanity; Scale-Bright very much enters into this canon…
Scale Bright follows on, both thematically and in content, from “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon”, the first of Sridungkaew’s works I ever encountered, a queer retelling of a traditional Chinese myth; her first novella-length work is similarly a retelling of traditional myth, but this time both queered (extensively) and also reset into modern day Hong Kong. Sridungkaew perfectly captures the mythic quality of these stories, rendering them both human and timeless, epic and yet also incredibly intimate; Sridungkaew never forgets the scale of her characters, or rather, scales her characters perfectly to her story.
Each character is perfectly portrayed, a crystalisation of a whole set of characteristics into a single individual; every one is intensely human above all else, even the gods – they’re not, unlike the Homeric deities, humans writ large, but rather simply humans with different problems to overcome, or problems of the same kinds but on a different scale. This makes the emotional notes of Scale-Bright ring all the truer; the heartbreak and pain Julienne and Olivia go through are truly heartwrenching, and the love of Houyi and Chang’E is a warm pulse throughout the work, a gentle thrum of emotion that underpins so much of the writing and renders it in a certain light.
Genre fiction is often accused of being too concerned with flashy plot over internal character dynamics, and accuses literary fiction in turn of navel-gazing without a plot; Sridungkaew’s novella proves excelletly the importance of both elements for good fiction. Scale-Bright balances the beautiful emotional writing noted above with a plot that is intricate, mythic, and inevitable by turns; events unfold not only as they must in mythic terms but also in human terms, following certain of the tropes of romance but only insofar as those tropes reflect truths about humanity. Plots link into one another, with Houyi’s penance to Xihe and Julienne’s romantic entanglement with Olivia linking in unexpected ways; the plot ties characters and strands together with grace and beauty.
All this, of course, is implicitly to praise Sridungkaew’s style, but indulge me as I do so explicitly. Few writers in their career ever manage to so perfectly evoke the feeling of myth in their fiction, the poetry of it; let alone the gentleness of love, the burning of lust, the ache of regret, and more. Sridungkaew evokes those without telling us she is doing so, her style meaning they are shot through the narrative, giving not just the characters those emotions but the story itself; her writing is evocative and beautiful, but more, it is like a caress of the ear, a coming home to prose that intimately knows what it is doing, not in a workmanlike sense, but with artistry. The way Turner put paint to paper, Sridungkaew uses words, creating impressions rather than exact replicas, but somehow impressions that are more real than any “realistic” representation could ever be.
Scale-Bright, if it wasn’t obvious, not only impressed me, it blew me away. This is a truly incredible, beautiful work, and I urge you all to read Benjanun Sridungkaew’s novella, and to do so right now. You won’t regret it.