The biggest difficulty I’ve had writing reviews for Once Upon a Time IX has been deciding which story to categorise where. The objective is to touch on each of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction, but there is clear overlap between folklore and myth, even from either of those into fairytale, and fantasy can serve as a blanket term for all three, not to mention enjoying its own dedicated subject matter.
Fortunately, Six-Gun Snow White has “fairytale” all sewn up, so that’s one down. I’ve chosen to call the subject of today’s review “fantasy”, although both folklore and myth have their place in it. Of the four books I’ve read, this has the most in common with mainstream fantasy fiction — although it also has a lot more than that besides…
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Julienne works for a jewellers in contemporary Hong Kong, a place of dense, bustling crowds and eye-catching sights — but though she considers herself largely beneath notice, she is forever capturing the attention of the city’s strange: like the paper-clad man with amber eyes and boot-black teeth, who quizzes her about her hearts desire from an impossible halo of space in a packed metro carriage, space only reclaimed by the oblivious commuters after he vanishes from their midst; or the bleeding woman in a lizard-green dress, ignored by all around but who locks her gaze onto Julienne’s with such intensity that, many preoccupied hours later, Julienne feels to compelled to return and offer the woman assistance. Weirdly light, Julienne is able to carry the woman home, washes the gore from her while cringing at the mess she has made in the apartment — then wakes the next day alone, sluggish, and weak to the point of collapse.
When she emerges her flat-mate, a warrior goddess, is reading in the living room. Although a powerful, masculine presence, Hau Ngai’s immediate response is to nurture, sensing that years of Julienne’s youth have been leached away before rejuvenating her with a touch. Hau Ngai reprimands her for foolishly exposing herself to supernatural beings (other supernatural beings, that is) and tucks her back into bed to recover — but the sense of perpetual (if inadvertent) infantilisation which mortal Julienne feels in such divine company weighs heavily on her, not least because of the attraction she feels for her aunt-in-law.
With Julienne safe, Hau Ngai bows to the inevitable and contacts her wife, Julienne’s aunt, the goddess Seung Ngo — though away from mortal company they go by the names Houyi (the archer who killed the sun’s children) and Chang’e (the woman who lives on the moon) respectively. They know that Julienne’s proximity to them makes her a target for the demonkind, but unusually Houyi plans not to embark on a bloody rampage but negotiate terms that will spare their niece in future. Yet neither the goddesses nor Julienne can anticipate the motives of the beings they will encounter in the days ahead, and even ancient feuds and grudges can take new twists…
The first thing to be noted about Scale Bright is the speed and ease with which the magical and the mundane are woven together. Contemporary Hong Kong is hardly the most dull of locations to set a story (I’ve no first-hand experience, but The Movies tell me so…), yet the everyday-and-night bustle of a modern metropolis is largely rendered without unnecessary flair, possibly because the unreality of its supernatural denizens can handle that side of things just fine. Still, within just the first handful of pages the commonplace presence of gods and demons feels considerably less out of place in this world than the more ordinary protagonist does.
Julienne is an engaging subject, struggling with her self-confidence, self-image and semi-closeted sexuality, issues then overshadowed by the parasitic or openly hostile intentions of creatures she knows are dangerous but also finds dangerously intriguing. She is very much a fish-out-of-water, so it helps that her relative passivity is more than balanced by Hau Ngai/Houyi, whose investigation reads much like a gung-ho private eye hitting the glamorous (or seedy) streets on a righteous (or ambiguous) mission.
Alongside the interesting characterisation, setting, themes and story, there is also the actual writing to consider. Happily, Scale Bright doesn’t disappoint on this count either. The prose is rich, the reading smooth, and the melding of mythology and original fiction as seamless as if all was cut from whole cloth. A case in point is Hau Ngai and Seung Ngo, pseudonyms for actual figures from Chinese myths, but Sriduangkaew’s reinvention of them extends beyond renaming and relocating them in time for her main story. Chang’e appears much as previously told, but Houyi, the divine archer, was originally male so their marriage is thus made a mature lesbian relationship — centuries matured, at least. While this is a timely creative decision, given the current cultural climate and how it has gripped fantasy writing, there is no sense that this is paying lip service to a fashion in fiction.
Scale Bright is not a particularly long read, but it is bolstered by three short stories about Houyi and Chang’e set in the distant past. These additional pieces are every bit as entertaining and well-written as the main novella and deepen the storyworld very effectively. However, I can’t help but think that — as a book — the reading experience would be better if we were to start with them and come to Julienne’s story with that context freshly in place. Small moan there, but the overall impression is of a dynamic, fresh piece of fantasy fiction.
Next up we shift from Chinese myth to Japanese fairytale with another short story review, but in parting I’d just like to direct attention to another participant in Once Upon a Time IX, reviewing Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. I think I’ll have to give that one a try.