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In 1917 the world was rocked by claims that two young girls – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths – had photographed fairies in the sleepy village of Cottingley. In 2017, a century later, we finally discover the true nature of these fey creatures. Correspondence has come to light that contains a harrowing account, written by village resident Lawrence Fairclough, laying bare the fairies’ sinister malevolence and spiteful intent.
Cottingley is a historical engagement with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous folly, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922; whereas Doyle’s work was supposedly nonfictional, and about the glory of the fairies, based on the since-admitted fakes of Wright and Griffiths, Littlewood’s takes a somewhat different tack…
This is a horror novel, pure and simple, and takes part in many of the standard conventions of such. Cottingley is one of those books that very directly aims to chill the heart with rendering the familiar and cosy, strange and dark; in this case, Littlewood takes on the comfort of the woods, the idea of the fairy at the bottom of the garden, and makes it increasingly sinister and destructive as the novel goes on. The creeping horror is mountingly effective as the narrator is willing to believe in the fairies from the beginning, but becomes increasingly disconcerted by their natures; these are not the gentle fairies of Conan Doyle but a rather more sinister, bloody group of beings, more linked to earlier folklore. Littlewood builds up the atmosphere in stages, with minor malice and fascination growing by degrees across the course of the novella, with the hints of the evil right in the very first encounter but unwilling to be believed, before Cottingley changes entirely.
The entire novella is epistolary, correspondence from Lawrence Fairclough to Edward Gardner, who helped Conan Doyle investigate the real Cottingley Fairy photographs. Cottingley suggests Lawrence is an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, and drawn into the great writer’s obsession with fairies, seeks to investigate himself; the relationship between Edward and Lawrence changes and alters over the course of the book, although Littlewood only gives us Lawrence’s side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to try to fill in the gaps oneself, and attempting to work out what the other side has said to prompt certain parts of the letters.
The solipsistic nature of this approach has its drawbacks. While Lawrence’s daughter in law, Charlotte, and granddaughter, Harriet, are fleshed out somewhat, they remain relatively elusive and idealised in the letters themselves; Cottingley really only has one complete character, and even he is very limited as we only see him in retrospect of times of crisis. Littlewood distills the plot down to its utmost drama, but at the sacrifice of individuality; Harriet is a good, dutiful, bookish girl, while Charlotte is the model of a good wife grieving a husband lost in the First World War now looking after her father in law. Even Lawrence is little more than a caricature, a man looking for something to cling to after losing his son, and finding the fairies; Littlewood makes him somewhat sympathetic but largely this is by the forces raised against him, not on his own account.
In the end, Cottingley is a good piece of literary horror, and an excellent engagement with one of Conan Doyle’s weirder obsessions, but as fiction goes, Littlewood has sadly forgotten the importance of character.
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Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent – not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.
Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun marries two powerful streams in British fiction; the gothic, a trend that goes back to the 18th century, with fairy tales, a genre that goes back much further. At first glance these two might sit uneasily together; does Ng make them fit?
Gothic is, in no small part, a matter of atmosphere; whether the Northern faded grandeur and isolation of Crimson Peak or the baroque claustrophobia of Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast, that is the foremost marker of the gothic. It is one Ng embraces wholeheartedly from the very opening of the novel; we are introduced to Catherine, Under the Pendulum Sun‘s protagonist, as she reaches the strangeness and abstraction of the Faelands. The opening of the novel is then concerned with her journey to the preacher’s manse of Gethsemane; a pile of stone that simultaneously seems to have been altered over the years, and to have been built in one go with the appearance of great age. Empty, slightly decaying, and understaffed, Ng’s chosen setting partakes of a number of gothic tropes, reworking them through excellent language and a powerful, although not light, touch that really does create the horror innate to the genre; this continues in those few sections that take place outside the castle, where the moors or forests are twisted versions of ones familiar to us, and that twist is simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish.
The plot is also suitably baroque; Under the Pendulum Sun concerns Catherine’s attempts to first find her brother, and then to discover what happened to the previous missionary to the fairies. Ng, loathe to leave no gothic tropes unused, also threads a forbidden romance into the mix, which burns slowly and alters the tenor of every character interaction between the only two humans in the novel, Catherine and her brother. The different plot elements are incredibly smartly done, and Ng wears her education lightly but effectively: events hinge in no small part on a matter of longstanding theological debate, and the degree to which theology is threaded through the novel as a lived concern cannot be overstated. The gothic cliches in the conclusion come thick and fast, but are well written, and Under the Pendulum Sun always makes sure the groundwork is laid for them.
Ng is less strong in her character work. Catherine is brilliant, and her emotional state decaying and fraying across the course of the novel is captured brilliantly, as are her varied desires in conflict with each other; Under the Pendulum Sun has a protagonist whose voice is never lost. Laon, however, seems a shallow character; he is a cipher for the plot, in no small respect, and without a strong sense of who he is throughout the book. The smaller parts are equally mixed fare; Mr Benjamin, the gnome gardener convert (whose mine was closed by the Lady of Iron), is a brilliantly curious little character, whose constraints and theological probing are at times hilarious and at times deeply moving. Ariel Davenport, on the other hand, is a rather thin character; Ng relies on Catherine’s attachment to Ariel to stand in as a proxy for reader attachment, and Under the Pendulum Sun suffers a bit for it.
The other place Under the Pendulum Sun suffers is stylistically. Ng has a beautiful, slightly baroque style, and a wide and fascinating imagination, encompassing sea whales and semiotic moths. At times, however, her style could have done with a tighter edit; there are points at which the text becomes repetitious or unclear, and occasional moments where the fantastic claustrophobia of the text becomes less an intentional trap of the gothic and more a frustration to the reader.
In the end, while Under the Pendulum Sun does have some shortcomings, Jeannette Ng has written an utterly brilliant gothic novel, using all the tropes and cliches of the genre and rising above them in magnificent style. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: Jeannette Ng is a friend.
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I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)
So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.
Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…
Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.
Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.
This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.
Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.
The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.
In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.
Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.
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All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.
But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.
Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?
In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.
The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.
The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.
That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.
In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.
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Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
Naomi Novik is most famous for her place in the fanfic community, as a cofounder of Archive Of Our Own, and for her Temeraire series of books, best described as Sharpe-with-dragons. Uprooted, at first glance, looks like a continuation of both traditions; a kind of fanfic of Polish fairy and folk tales, with added dragons. But that’s a very misleading glance; Uprooted is something very different, standing rather alone in its field like the tower that forms a key location in the narrative…
In many ways, Uprooted is exactly the kind of book fantasy readers are expected to look down on; a magic system that isn’t really explained, a strange evil force encroaching on the land, a Ruritanian social and political model, and a (late) teenage protagonist who it turns out is more than they seem. On the other hand, that’s also the recipe of an awful lot of successful fantasy novels, so perhaps it’s no surprise there’s so many entries in that tradition. Uprooted isn’t one of them, however; while at first blush using all those aspects, Novik averts, subverts, complicates or simply elevates them in her novel, as well as having a sense of joyousness, of humanity, of humaneness that was last seen in Goblin Emperor and had been missing from much of fantasy for some time before that.
Uprooted opens in a Ruritanian community that is threatened by a dark, mysterious forest that is evil in an infectious, magical way; the community is protected by a wizard named the Dragon, whose only condition of protection is that, once a decade, he will choose one young woman of seventeen to serve him for ten years. At the end of that decade, she will be released – but will not return to the valley, and won’t be part of the community from which she came. Agnieszka, the protagonist of Uprooted, knows she won’t be the one chosen, because her beautiful, elegant friend Kasia will be; she herself is clumsy, messy and perpetually slightly dishevelled. But when it comes time, it is Agnieszka who is chosen by the Dragon to begin a ten-year period of servitude for which she is completely unprepared.
Novik deals with this upheaval in the life of all her characters elegantly, and without the emotional dishonesty that much Chosen One fiction peddles in: Agnieszka does wish she hadn’t been chosen, but she also feels guilty for it, knowing that she is thereby wishing her friend had been, a rift in their relationship that can’t be addressed because they are unable to see each other. Uprooted handles the emotional complexity of the transfer to a new place and way of life, of dealing with the Dragon’s very open disapproval of her messiness, and of learning why he ended up – against his own judgement – choosing Agnieszka over Kasia. There’s a beautiful emotional core to the novel that wouldn’t be possible had Novik taken the obvious root of making this a coming of age story, rather than the story of someone who has already come of age; a sense of self-awareness to Agnieszka that is absolutely golden, and something we see all too rarely in a tale like this, allowing her to comment on it in a more (although obviously not fully) mature way than would otherwise be realistic.
This is a very character-driven novel, but that isn’t to say there’s no peril or plot; Uprooted may be gentle and generous, but that’s not to say bad things don’t happen. Bad things include terrible things happening to Kasia and to Agnieszka’s friends from her old life, and include a very well-written and sensitively handled attempted rape of Agnieszka (that she shuts down wonderfully); actions have consequences and magic has a price, but Novik also gives the story a soul of gentleness that is belied by how dark it get. In that sense it’s like the best fairy tales, a tradition Novik openly draws on; dark and scary at times but with an intensely humane core that is never buried under the horrors (scary trees! Is this the next trend?).
It’s also an intensely vibrant, beautiful novel. Uprooted is one of those books it’s impossible to talk about with talking about that nebulous concept, “style”; whereas Novik’s Temeraire series couldn’t really settle between modern and period language and narrative, Uprooted knows exactly what it’s doing, and proceeds to do it beautifully. This is a lush, gorgeous novel, full of neat turns of phrase that do far more work than their length suggests in creating a scene or the world; a novel that is openly interested in the aesthetics of language, of how words can create a sense of story. It’s almost like a song, appropriate given how magic functions in the novel, or like a river of words, flowing along, drawing (rather than dragging) the reader with it, through the slower and the faster passages into the rapids that form the final part of the book before crashing over the waterfall that is the ending of the novel.
Uprooted feels very like Goblin Emperor, despite being a very different book, because of its beautiful language and its core of humanity; if you’re wondering where that has gone in much modern fantasy, and even if you’re not, I cannot strongly enough urge you to read this!
Alfred of St Ruan’s Abbey was content to live as a quiet monk among his brethren, who did not remark upon his impossibly youthful face, healing talents and uncanny ability to ‘see’ into the minds of others. None would even think to ask him if he were of the Elven-kind. Yet inevitably there came a time when events intruded on the tranquility of the cloisters, and Alfred had to face the harsh realities of the England of Richard the Lionheart. Thrust reluctantly into the temporal world – a world unwilling to accept one of the Fair Folk as a priest of God – Alfred confronts his unacknowledged self. Part man, part priest, part elf-kind, he must choose his own destiny.
I picked up Isle of Glass after Kari Sperring talked enthusiastically and passionately about Judith Tarr’s historical fantasy work at Dysprosium last week. In some ways, I’ll be rehashing what she said about the books; but since she spoke more generally, I’ll only be discussing things appearing in this volume, and will touch on some things she did not.
The best way to discuss Isle of Glass is by contrast with its first chapter. Tarr has written a sparkling, scintillating, multifaceted gem of a novel; unfortunately, the first facet one sees on approach is the marred, scarred, dull one, that is unfortunately necessary to overcome in order to get to the rest of this beautiful construction.
The deepest scarring of this facet, to continue the metaphor, is also what shines brightest in the rest of the novel: characterisation. In the first chapter we meet Alfred, a foundling monk, and his friend from childhood, the Abbot Morwin, and see them discussing Alfred’s strange inhumanity, his fey appearance, and his lack of aging, in a theological context. While full of information, this opening chapter is also incredibly dry, and the characters are relatively absent – Alfred’s frustration is there, but there’s minimal other character.
Compare this with the rest of the book; everyone in Isle of Glass, from the minor characters like Kilhwch and Joscelin to more central figures such as Thea, Jehan or Richard Couer de Lion, has been written in such a way as to be human and to have meaningful motivations; however much we might despise their actions, it is clear Tarr, and the reader, must have sympathy for them too. Every character is portrayed as having an internal life, and a believable one; they’re all characters we want to know more about and spend more time with, even the ones we dislike. This is especially important given the diversity Tarr includes in Isle of Glass; while there is a paucity of female characters, including in the background, one of the key characters is a Greek Orthodox woman, and a number of important characters are gay. They’re presented without it being ever explicitly stated in a modern way, and through the appropriate lens of the time; including a theological underpinning to all the characters. This is one of the most interesting, and subtle, features of the novel; Tarr avoids the modern attitude to religion of it being an add-on, and renders it as the totalising worldview that is in fact the case.
Another scar on that first facet is what actually happens in it. Although Morwin and Alfred have a conversation that gives us vital information and sets up the rest of the novel in some ways, nothing actually takes place in it; and the ways it sets up later events are simply establishing of the baseline of the novel and of Alfred’s character, rather than doing any serious foreshadowing. Indeed, when Isle of Glass applies a ring structure, it isn’t with anything in the first chapter, but in later early chapters, as if Tarr doesn’t want to recall this first chapter.
Otherwise, Isle of Glass is an incredibly compact novel; while there’s naturally changes of pace in the novel, and Tarr handles them very well and matches them to her plot excellently. This is, in some ways, a very typical fantasy bildungsroman; Alfred has to leave the monastery and go to court, and en route he discovers who he is and begins to come into himself. Furthermore, Tarr makes it an incomplete bildungsroman; there is a theme in the novel of continuous self-discovery and change, and the various bildungsroman plots in the novel (such as Jehan’s) allow for multiple explorations of that.
There is also a larger, less personal, more epic plot of international politics and diplomatic relations; Tarr humanises that, by centring nations into kings – a writing technique that also reflects ideas of the time: monarchs as embodiments of nations. Isle of Glass avoids the obvious cliches of a novel set in the reign of Richard I, not pretending he loved England or acting as a kind of Robin Hood fanfic valourising Richard as an ideal human being. It’s more subtle than that, and more historically honest; based on strong research and an interest in history, Tarr manages to create a plot in the edges of the historical record that remains accurate even with the addition of the fantastical and fictional elements that comprise Isle of Glass.
In the end then, that first facet the reader encounters in Isle of Glass is incredibly misleading as to what Tarr has lined up for after it. I absolutely second Kari Sperring’s recommendation of this book, and this series.
A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.
Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian flavour.
I first knowingly ran across Zen Cho at some point during Nineworlds, and then again at LonCon, in part through discussion of how fast copies of this collection had sold in the dealers’ room. I feel a little guilty, therefore, that it has taken me this long to get around to reading it, having scored myself a copy after the cons…
Spirits Abroad is a Fixi Novo book, and that means a few things. Primarily, it will use dialect and non-English terms, it will not translate them (though it does transliterate), and it will not italicise them; that leads to a smoother, more integrated reading experience in stories that are intentionally, in many cases, cross-cultural. It also won’t be apologetic about using Malaysian culture; Zen Cho is herself Malaysian, and the stories here all draw to a greater or lesser extent on that cultural heritage, without feeling a need to justify that. It’s a rather beautiful sight.
Of course, that’s the publishing house as much as the collection specifically; Spirits Abroad is more than simply unapologetic about being Malaysian. For a start, it’s a collection of damn good stories. There are ten stories collected in the volume in three loose categories; the first, Here, comprises about half the book and is three stories set in Malaysia while the second, There, is made up of four stories set amongst the Malaysian diaspora, largely in student communities in the UK, and the last, Elsewhere, is set in places that do not in fact exist. Each rough thematic grouping is consistent in that sense and in some of the themes that come through across the stories collected under those headings, but also has a variety in their actual content; Cho’s ten stories are so varied in what they’re doing, who they focus on, and what they are interested in, even while having shared characteristics, that to try to talk about the volume as a whole is almost pointless.
Instead, let’s briefly talk about each story. The three stories that open Spirits Abroad each deal with traditional Malaysian myths interacting with or living in the modern world; first the most familiar to Western readers, the idea of the witch, in a story that is as heartwarming and funny as it is emotionally moving and sad, packing a huge amount into only a brief space and discussing family, diaspora, the changes that happen in an individual when they leave their community and the strain of trying to assimilate to another country. The second story, ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’, is one that has elements familiar to any student radical – a group brought together to try to advocate for minority rights but instead devolving into a round of nostalgia for the past, and dominated by a forceful personality; but Cho subverts expectations by introducing a mythical minority, the orang bunian, and drawing out of this a romance across worlds, that is beautiful and incredibly human in its emotional truth. The last story of Here, and the longest of the collection, is explicitly a vampire story and yet not, being about a family of pontianak; ‘The House of Aunts’ is a coming of age story, a feminist tale that really drives home the exploitation of women by men in their personal lives, and the myriad forms such abuse can take. It is also a teenage romance, and that combination works much better than it should; the lecturing of the Aunts to our protagonist on the theme “All men are bastards” contrasts with her teenage idealism and her own experience of the world beautifully.
There is a section that has a more uniform theme running through it; each of the protagonists of the stories is a Malaysian student in the UK studying, either at school for A-Levels or at university. Each of them is also straddling two worlds, having to deal with being in the UK while also being centred in the diaspora community; this is something a that is often discussed negatively in terms of tribalism, but Spirits Abroad excellently lays out some of the reasons for it – not least of which is not having to explain yourself if you associate with people coming from a shared cultural background, an automatic privilege to “domestic” students. The stories are wildly different in tone, from the brilliant humour and anti-romance of ‘Prudence and the Dragon’ (complete with scathing caricature of Boris Johnson) to the darker, creepier and yet still at times funny ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’; Cho’s control of voice and style is really strong, and going from story to story here is a joy as we see different parts of the Malaysian student experience in Britain dissected.
Spirits Abroad closes out on its most speculative section, Elsewhere. The three stories here are radically different from the previous works in that they don’t insert the supernatural into the everyday to create their analogies, but rather are wholly speculative; from the literally ancestral homes of ‘Liyana’ to the layering of alienness/alienation, cultural and physical, between diaspora generations in the science fiction of ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, Cho creates incredibly human worlds that seem perfectly natural in her nonhuman settings. The stories here are the warmest in the collection, in some ways, feeling almost cosy at times, and while ‘Chang E’ doesn’t quite connect for me, a white Westerner living in their nation of origin, nor is it really intended to.
Zen Cho, in Spirits Abroad, shows such a variety of different storytelling approaches, but two things are clear; she has something to say with her fiction, and she will not be stopped from saying it. And a third thing, too – you should listen to what she is saying, not only because it is important, but because she is an excellent author of fiction, too.