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Monthly Archives: September 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

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You’ve got to be careful when you’re chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stars lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.

The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent’s past, has begun something and now whispers of an uprising flutter out from invisible corners.

Only one woman may be willing to pursue the truth – but it is likely to cost her everything.
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Not many novels take on themes like religion, empire, or the power of history; even fewer will take on those themes, and more, all together. City of Stairs is one of those few, and Robert Jackson Bennett really has provided us with a very interesting instance.

City of Stairs is a novel packed with ideas, whose plot navigates through, between and around those ideas deftly and ably. What at first seems to be a simple murder mystery increasingly moves into deeper realms of political complications and espionage, as Shana Komayd works her way through a combination of historical scholarship and detective work. Bennett weaves a number of themes together as he does this, by making sure the different things going on in the book don’t become unrelated; rather, each action and each theme is a strand in the intricate spider’s web of the novel. Hence, Shana has to navigate issues of racism, of how a postcolonial nation can interact with its former coloniser if said coloniser has lost its power, of the intricacies of history and what it conceals, of the way mass shared belief both influences and is influenced by those holding it. These are complex, fascinating themes that nonfiction struggles to do justice to; and yet City of Stairs, by putting them in a fantastic setting, unmooring them from our everyday lived experience, and also by not trying to give answers but only ask and pose the questions, does a wonderful job of making one think about them.

Part of the way Bennett integrates this is having the cast themselves directly considering these questions; City of Stairs has characters who consider big questions and think about the world around them – Shana especially, but also others. This works because they are well-rounded, different, individual characters; each member of the cast has their own history, their own beliefs, their own different outlooks on the world, but also their own politics. Shana’s curiosity and academic approach to the world is brilliantly executed, her slight remove from the world around her is fascinatingly done; City of Stairs carries some of that remove within itself, but at the same time is able to shift rapidly to follow a different character. Sigrud is one of those others; a sort of Beowulf-riff, seemingly conciously so, with added elements of exile and strife, the dry, straightforward style of Sigrud’s passages are in marked contrast with the more intellectual, thoughtful tone of Shana’s. Bennett’s ability to switch tone and style here is magnificent, and very effective. Even characters who aren’t viewpoints can be fascinatingly written; the slightly-hedonistic modernising Vohannes Votrov is a fabulous piece of writing, combining slight camp with brilliant charm and a hard-headed realism combined with amazing idealism that really make him pop off the page, in such an amazing way, a truly vivid character in a cast of such.

The thing that really fascinates about City of Stairs is the worldbuilding. Bennett has created a complex world that interrogates a number of assumptions of our world; the dominant cultural force is the nation of PoC, rather than the racist whites who have lost their gods and their power because they refused to innovate. The gods have been destroyed, and magic is dying with them – although City of Stairs builds a number of caveats around that. The imperialist powers are seen only from the perspective of those who used to be their slaves, and now keep them poor. The multiple realities of the gods were none of them “base reality”, and all conflicted, but all were simultaneously “real”. The layering of complexity, of fascination, of different elements into the world Bennett builds in the novel are brilliant; the different cultural preferences, the way politics works, the fascinating ideas about the inner working of nations and intelligence services, all are conveyed wonderfully.

City of Stairs keeps being mentioned in the same context as Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, and it is easy to see why; both refuse to take easy routes, or simple narratives; both take on big issues especially around power and empire; but there are some key differences, in focus and in scale. City of Stairs, though, is absolutely a novel on approximately the level of Mirror Empire; brilliant, innovative, and mindblowingly good.

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City of Stairs is already out in the US, and comes out on October 2nd from Jo Fletcher Books in the UK.

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The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.
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Holmberg’s YA fantasy romance is in a number of ways creative, but at the same time, The Paper Magician is also incredibly trope-bound; the question one ought to ask, then, is whether Holmberg manages to do anything interesting with those tropes…

The Paper Magician feels very much like a post-Harry Potter phenomenon somehow, with its school for magic, its mysterious, secretive mentor figure who must be saved by our protagonist, the band of evil magicians with special spells only they can use, and – as in Order of the Phoenix – our reluctant, moody teenager. On the other hand, there are as many differences as similarities; the idea of bonding to one type of material, for instance, and the apprenticeship model of magic combined with a schooling model. It’s an interesting blend, which Holmberg makes all the more curious by throwing in a host of romance tropes; indeed, this is almost more of a romance novel than it is a fantasy, with the movement from resentment to adoration of Thane across the course of The Paper Magician hitting all the expected notes.

The first place Holmberg hits on something new is in her magic system; combining a kind of one-year theory course with an apprenticeship, with the added wrinkle of being able to affect only one (man-made) material, The Paper Magician is quite interesting in how it uses that magic. Indeed, the power of paper magic – of an unexpected kind of magical power – is very well handled, although little explained; it seems to be a sort of handwaving but a handwaving designed to display the various different forms of power that are possible. Indeed, some of the paper magic we see is quite beautiful, and Holmberg is very definitely able to exploit and subvert expectations in this area, partly through resisting the temptation to pin down her magic system too neatly in the Sanderson mode.

The problem comes with the plot and the characters. While The Paper Magician does a lot of interesting and new things to surround them, the core of the novel is basically a standard fantasy romance; Ceony is the standard teenage girl who comes to be impressed by and love her mentor despite an earlier disappointment with who she has been assigned. The plot revolves around her saving him from his ex-wife, who – with the forbidden “flesh-magic” of Excisionism – has literally stolen his heart; so Ceony has to traipse through Thane’s heart to save him. It’s an interesting conceit, especially in a romance novel, although not unproblematic; the mingling of magic and anatomical accuracy is quite brilliant.

What really saves the novel, though, isn’t its flashes of brilliance overlaying the dull old tropes; it’s Holmberg’s writing. The Paper Magician is elevated by beautiful readable, simple prose. It’s not simple in the manner of flat, dull, lifeless prose, but rather in its stylish, smooth, unadornedness; Holmberg writes neat, evocative, stylish prose that really flows and draws the reader on and into the book, bringing the old tropes a new lease on life. This is especially true in Holmberg’s willingness to shift her speed and pace to match the action; this marriage of pace and style to content is excellent, and something we tend to undervalue in fantasy.

The Paper Magician isn’t doing anything terribly new, and Holmberg’s debut has some serious bumps along the road and hangups, but it a definite marker of future good things.

The Birthday Problem by Caren Gussoff

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In the year 2060, the next plague has arrived. MaGo bots, the nanotechnology used for everything from fighting the common cold to radical life extension, have begun to malfunction, latching onto the brain’s acetylcholine receptors to cause a permanent state of delirium.

The Birthday Problem follows four Seattle survivors: Chaaya Gopal Lee, great-granddaughter of the MaGo programmer, whom the pandemic turns into a killer; 40-something ex-rock star and pharmacy technician Greystone Toussaint, the “King of Seattle”; Alastair Gomez-Larsen, forced to become a blood-smuggler to treat his father’s liver disease; and Didi VanNess, a lovesick former-WNBA center and CNA, who tries to win back her wife’s heart against a backdrop of madness, death and 30 cats, all named Ira.
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The Birthday Problem is Gussoff’s first novel-length work, but in many ways it isn’t a novel; the title, coming from a mathematical problem, gives away its nature, a series of linked-in-passing stories.

Gussoff has constructed a mosaic story here, which tells, in the bulk of the novel, a series of stories connected to each other by characters who pass through some, are centred in others; it’s an interesting construction that highlights how what would seem implausible coincidence in a novel is actually not only but plausible in day to day life. This is framed around an apocalypse whose scale or extent is unclear, and whose cause is uncertain; The Birthday Problem‘s biggest flaw in its worldbuilding is that, at times, it feels like it hasn’t got any. There’s the apocalypse, and there’s the world preceding it, but there doesn’t appear to be much link between the two, or any real thought about the impact of the apocalypse even on the individuals affected; and the whole thing is irrelevant to the plot, leaving one wondering why it is there. The one interesting thing about the worldbuilding is how it normalises queerness, with gay prom dates, gay married parents, and so on, all going totally uncommented on, which is a nice element.

The Birthday Problem is, though, more of a series of character studies than interested in plot or world. Each of these short character studies focuses on a different person whose life interacts with one or more of the other characters in the novel and is then drawn into more interactions; Gussoff manages this tangling of threads well. The problem is, most of the threads we don’t care about; there are very few individual voices, very little reason to care about any of the characters because they’re very much uninteresting, and very little thought given to making them more individual than just changing the names. There’s a certain superficiality to a lot of The Birthday Problem, both the author’s and the characters’, that goes utterly uninterrogated; indeed, authorial assumptions are completely unquestioned, and all the characters bar one seem to basically share an understanding of the world and a defeatist psychology in the most strange way. There’s no motivation to any of what they do, not in the sense of purposelessness but in the sense of simply author-driven action; things happen so Gussoff can, later, have other things happen and draw out coincidences.

The structure of The Birthday Problem is one I’d love to see emulated more, with its mosaic style built on unseen or unexpected links; the problem is the rest of the novel is so poorly executed that I fear Gussoff may have killed off any chances of that emulation…
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The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

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The Drowning City. Home to exiles and expatriates, pirates and smugglers. And violent revolutionaries who will stop at nothing to overthrow the corrupt Imperial government.

For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to her crown. All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir. But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers – even the dead are plotting.

As the waters rise and the dams crack, Isyllt must choose between her mission and the city she came to save.
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I read The Drowning City some years ago, around the time it came out in 2009; Downum’s novels then dropped a bit out of my radar, until my attention was drawn back to them in part by panels at Nineworlds and LonCon. So, knowing it also comes with Bear’s stamp of approval, I went back to it…

The Drowning City is in some ways a novel very much of its time, while in other ways being a novel forty years after its time. The city of Symir is clearly very much influenced by New Orleans, and the novel by Katrina, with its river, charms everywhere, carnival, and swampy atmosphere; and yet at the same time it feels very much like a Vietnam-era novel, albeit with its hero cast in the role of a Soviet, rather than American, agent. The plot does nothing to undermine this; with guerilla resistance to occupying imperial forces split into various factions, some more extreme than others and willing to murder those less extreme than, let alone opposed to, themselves, and who blend into the population, and with massacres of civilian villages by the imperialist troops, there are resonances with modern Middle Eastern invasions but far stronger ones, especially with the Great Game politicking going on and the worldbuilding with South-East Asian influences, with Vietnam. Indeed, the Downum presses these themes home so much and so frequently that one begins to wish for a different war, a different inspiration; it feels like a book, a history, we’ve all seen before.

Of course, that’s not all this novel is; The Drowning City actually has an awful lot going on, even if Downum is rooting it largely in that seemingly-Vietnamesque scenario. There are multiple levels of politicking, with the revolutionaries and Isyllt, between different revolutionary factions, within revolutionary factions, and between Isyllt and her opposite Imperial number. Some of these also involve romances and personal relationships, others personal emnities, and the tangled mess of relationships is portrayed very effectively and strongly tied into the plot in a very powerful way, meaning this isn’t a romance-and-an-intrigue, it’s an intrigue-romance or romance-intrigue. The two are, fundamentally, inseparable and support each other excellently, with the same kind of approach as the better class of spy thriller.

The characters are really what makes Downum stand out from the crowd though; Isyllt, her necromancer, recovering from a heartbreak and by the end of the novel also carrying disability with her; Xinai, an exile returned home to join the revolution; Adam, Xinai’s partner and Isyllt’s bodyguard, pragmatic and with torn loyalties; Zhirin, the young apprentice with ideals and a power greater than she knows; Asherin, the Imperial agent and something more besides… The Drowning City refuses to make any character simple, or monolayered; everyone has multiple things going on at the same time, multiple strands of influence behind their actions, multiple strands of plot they are involved in. It’s an excellent piece of writing, especially as the voices are kept distinct; while the habit of naming a character rapidly when switching to their viewpoint is a little frustrating at times, given the clear demarkation of voice and role in the narrative, the switching itself is a very effective and interesting approach to giving us multiple angles on the same actions.

I said this novel felt both forty years late and very much of its time; but The Drowning City also, in some ways, feels timeless, in what it says about the human heart, about imperialism and resistance to empire, about youth and idealism, and more. Downum’s fantasy isn’t the most original thing out there, but it is good, and I commend it to you.

GUEST POST: ‘The White Snake and the narrative choices you make’ by Benjanun Sridungkaew

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Benjanun Sridungkaew will likely have come to most people’s attention over the last 18 months for her prolific, wonderful, non-Western-centric short fiction that has taken in virtually every subgenre there is; she has been published on Tor.com, Giganotosaurus, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, reprinted in various year’s bests – hell, just go and check out her bibliography; and this year she was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. She’s finally graced the world with her first novella-length work, which I loved; so here is Benjanun Sridungkaew, on Scale-Bright!
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White Snake and Green Snake by Yangtianli

When I came across this lovely art of Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing – the white and green snake, respectively – I had a giggle when I read the description: like me, the artist thought ‘the guy the White Snake married’ (Xu Xian, though I often have trouble remembering his name, I think we all do) was… not perhaps the most exemplary hero. In the original legend, he comes across as gullible, weak-minded, and a little boring, being prone to fainting and being deceived. He is, to be charitable, not particularly worthy of Bai Suzhen (one wonders: what is he worthy of? Hm).

Which is to say, I could have told the story of the White Snake finding the reincarnation of her husband in modern Hong Kong – that would be how some writers might have done it – but, really, why would I? It doesn’t seem like much of a story, and if he failed her so badly back then it doesn’t seem likely he will be much more sensible a few reincarnations later. I would have been bored trying to whip that material into something that’d excite and interest me. Maybe she could look for her son, who would presumably have been born half-demon? That has a bit more promise, but it’s still not quite right. It’s lacking something. Fun. Excitement. When I write, I want the story to excite me first.

But I really liked the White Snake legend. What was one to do?

By that point I had already written the stories collected in The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, centered around the archer Houyi and her wife Chang’e. And I wanted to do more with those characters – and so tying them all into the same thing emerged as the likeliest choice. I would get to continue the thread I built up through those three short stories, and play with another favorite myth at once – and I really like efficiency! The best part is that I didn’t have to change anything about the original – with Houyi I made a particular, significant deviation from the source material, but here I built on what is already there. The legend of the White Snake already centers on two women bound as sworn sisters, who do all the things – having adventures, fighting, knowing what they want and going for it against all odds.
What I am taking a long, long way about to saying is that I think it matters what stories we choose to tell, the direction of narrative we take. Ana Grilo, reviewing Scale-Bright, says that the mythical story threads are ‘important in their reshaping the imagining of the world from a very feminine point of view’ – and I was so delighted to see that, it’s definitely one of the objectives I set out to accomplish. Yes, I could have woven the story around Bai Suzhen searching for her son, her husband, or both; another writer might even have made a reincarnation of Xu Xian or her son the lead of the book – or kept Houyi’s gender from the legends, brought ‘him’ into modern Hong Kong as a wuxia hero in leather jackets. Those could have been good stories, I imagine, but they are not the ones I chose. I’m faithful to old legends that I love, but I don’t think we should be totally shackled to them. Storytellers get to modify, leave out, expand.

In my book, Houyi is a woman. She has a wife and wears dapper, and loosely follows an internal code similar to that of wuxia heroes. Chang’e is not a frivolous ditz (as some of the variants portray her); she is an equal partner to her wife, as capable as Houyi and striving as hard to be an aunt to their niece Julienne. Xiaoqing is notorious for having seduced peasant girls in ancient China, and the demon’s realm is populated by beings who are unfettered in romance. The various story threads in the novella are held together by a depressed young woman, who gets to have adventures and find herself worthy of herself.

These narrative choices don’t come out of nowhere. Whom we choose to center is as important as whom (or what) we leave out. We make the choices of whether face-punching occurs in the stories we tell, or whether the shoes we make are comfortable for everyone to wear and don’t flood the waters with weird, awful chemicals. And personally, I feel much more comfortable not going around punching people in the face or pumping toxic waste into the waters. Hooray for nice, clean waters!

One-Eyed Jack by Elizabeth Bear

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The One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: personifications of Las Vegas – its history, mystery, mystical power, and heart. When the Suicide King vanishes – possibly killed – in the middle of a magic-rights turf war started by the avatars of Los Angeles, a notorious fictional assassin, and the mutilated ghost of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – his partner, the One-Eyed Jack, must seek the aid of a bizarre band of legendary and undead allies: the ghosts of Doc Holliday and John Henry the steel-driving man; the echoes of several imaginary super-spies, decades displaced in time; and a vampire named Tribute, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain long-lost icon of popular music.
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Bear’s afterwork to One-Eyed Jack says she wrote the novel over the decade from 1996, when she was Vegas-based; that familiarity with the city, with the (a?) essential essence of Las Vegas, is clear, but on the other hand, the book feels like something that evolved…

That’s principally a function of the plot of One-Eyed Jack. Told from multiple points of view, it feels less like an integrated whole than like a film that has been assembled by a cut-happy director; we switch from viewpoint to viewpoint, character to character, so quickly that sometimes we lose everything else, just trying to keep up with the changes – and are hence somewhat thrown out of their place in the story, and their emotions. They’re there-and-gone, far too fast for us to get any kind of grasp on them – or for them to get one on us. While the spy-versus-spy, film-and-TV influenced plot does indeed demand a fast pace and a certain amount of cutting and jumping around, that emulation is here taken too far, forgetting the impact of the long single-take shot. However, the intricacies of the plot, once it is pinned down, are fascinating, and a stripped-back version of One-Eyed Jack would be a fascinating experience from a plot perspective, a really interesting piece of spy-versus-spy, Cold War-era fiction.

The Cold War era element comes in no small part from the cultural allusions and references Bear has used for her novel; inevitably, in a story about the genii of places and about shared myths, a number of mythised characters appear. One-Eyed Jack, in that regard, goes a little over my head; of the many different myths involved – including, I’m reliably informed, I, Spy, The Man From UNCLE, and others – I recognised The Avengers, Elvis, and James Bond; hence a whole lot of references passed me by. Indeed, Bear has written a novel which is almost in code; if you understand the cultural allusions involved I suspect you will get a whole lot more out of the characters than I did, simply because I did not know their background, history, or “mythic origins”. Bear’s crediting of fan communities for some of these references is also interesting, as the development of the characters within the novel demonstrates some of the same shift that those communities apply to characters, especially in things like fanfic, wherein characters change to match our expectations of them; in One-Eyed Jack, and indeed the whole Promethean Age series, characters are defined by our expectations of them. It’s an interesting idea but without the base frame of reference, lost a lot of its power for me.

However, one aspect of it didn’t lose any of its power; fanworks famously often have “slash fiction” as a key component, and One-Eyed Jack is all about the slash. Not only is the key central couple a pair of male avatars of Las Vegas, but various of the spies called up also seem increasingly queered as the novel goes on. Bear plays it low-key and neatly, but the creeping queering of the characters is a wonderful bit of writing, so what starts the novel as a shared glance of professional understanding becomes complicity becomes emotional connection; whether this is in the eye of the reader – and some of the characters – or in the text is a meaningless question, almost, given what One-Eyed Jack is saying about reality and fiction.

This latest (last?) entry in the Promethean Age series is a bit of a mess, but also brilliant; the uneven, choppy plot and required cultural reference points are easily outmatched by Bear’s fluid writing style and her fantastic characters, making One-Eyed Jack a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sridungkaew

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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.
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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.

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