Tag: asia

Books books books

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Now that my life is no longer about edits, a few books:

-Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (ARC obtained from publisher). Zacharias Whyte is the newest sorcerer to the Crown, and he’s got his work cut out for him: he’s black in a society that has no liking for people of colour, suspected of murdering his predecessor and guardian; and to top it all, the magic that England was relying on is steadily draining away. As he travels to Fairyland to determine the cause of the magical penury, Zacharias picks up Prudence, an impoverished gentlewoman who is determined to make her own way in the world–and who has a decidedly peculiar inheritance. Magic, mayhem (and interfering aunties) in a Regency setting: it’s a hilarious book, but also one that pokes sly fun at the social conventions of the time and the place of women and POCs. Sort of a cross between Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and PG Wodehouse, with a postcolonial slant. Also, it’s got Malaysian vampires, and they’re awesome.

-Pat Cadigan, Tea from an Empty Cup (book bought). I first read this ten years ago, and it hasn’t lost its power. It’s short and punchy–a double tale of a murder investigation in an immersive artificial reality and a woman looking for her friend and getting caught in some shady dealings involving stolen virtual artefacts, and access to a special level in said artificial reality). I loved the world building (in a dystopic future where Japan has disappeared and the survivors struggle to find a sense of national identity, something that really resonated to me as a second-gen whose maternal country was lost to war for a while); and the artificial reality is amazing–I’m sceptical of SF’s ability to predict the future, but Pat Cadigan was square on, on both the saturation of the AR by ads, and the gaming culture that develops around it, with its accompanied mysticism, its prizing of avatars and things found online and its search for hacks, new levels and new sensations (which reminded me of MMORPGs and Second Life).

(a few minor quibbles: I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of racial memory, or on the idea you could tell someone’s racial mark-up just by looking at them–as a diasporan, the elevated mysticism and mythology that develops around the lost land of Japan feels very accurate, though sometimes a little too forced and forceful for my personal taste. And sometimes the world building rang a little hollow–I wasn’t sure what Yuki did for a living or how she was able to drop everything to follow Joy Flower. But that’s very much a function of this being a short and to-the-point novel).

-Nghia M Vo, Legends of Vietnam: An Analysis and Retelling of 88 Tales (book bought): I’m really conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it’s a reasonably good book of fairytales and Vietnamese folklore, with legends from the North, the South and some (all too few) from ethnic minorities. It provides context, both cultural and historical (and it’s got all the proper diacritics, which is awesome for following up on stuff), and there are lots of tales and tidbits that I’ve heard but not seen elsewhere, so I think it’s fair to call it the most complete compilation I’ve seen yet. On the other hand… the commentary sometimes grates. There’s the odd swipe at passive Vietnamese, incapable of banding together or of understanding progress, unlike Western nations (which is just wtf); and a lot of sallies against the Northerners  (and I know there was a war; I know unforgivable things were done and I’m not minimising the pain people went through; heck, I live in its shadow. But I really don’t think a book of fairy tales is the place for this kind of stuff). Of note, there’s a bunch of tales in the post-war years, but I can’t comment on these because I found them triggering, and had to skip this section.

-Kari Sperring, The Grass King’s Concubine (book bought)  This is a book with several narrative strands: one in the present, where Aude, born to wealth, runs away and seeks to understand where her family’s fortune came from; and one in the past, where a man called Marcellan enters the Rice Palace, domain of the Grass King, the mythical being who embodies the earth and the harvest. In the present, Aude gets kidnapped by the Grass King’s bannermen, and taken to a deserted, devastated Rice Palace, where she is told she must fix what her ancestors broke…

This is slow, intimate and quite wonderful. I love the contrast between the Brass and Silver Cities and their endless hunger for wealth (and one of Kari’s strengths, I think–in addition to lush prose–is that she nails social class, social oppression and the way the progress of the Industrial Revolution was built on the misery of the many), and the Rice Palace and its fairytale logic; and the driving mystery of what exactly happened in the past is very well done (and going to an unexpected conclusion). It seems at first that the two halves (the Industrial Revolution cities and the Rice Palace) belong to two wildly different books, but on finishing the book you realise that the unifying theme is the devastation of greed and hunger for power–and that, in that respect, the present is not so different from the past–it’s a very clever and subtle juxtaposition, and it works all the better for never being outright said.

I have a couple quibbles, the first is that you should avoid reading the cover copy before you start the book, because it has the worst spoilers I’ve seen in quite a while; the second is that the ending feels a teensy bit rushed–and by far the most major one is that this begs for a sequel, and there is none yet! (I have a plan which involves pestering Kari until she gives in ^^).

Next up: Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings!

House of Shattered Wings and one sequel sell to Gollancz

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House of Shattered Wings and one sequel sell to Gollancz

So…

Once upon a time, in a far, far away galaxy, I began working on this odd little project. It had started as a urban fantasy set in 21st century Paris, where families of magicians held the reins of power in every domain from banking to building. Then I couldn’t make it work, because the worldbuilding wasn’t clicking with me. I wrote perhaps three chapters of it before it became painfully clear that my heart wasn’t in it.

So I nuked Paris.

Well, sort of. I made up a Great Magicians’ War, comparable in scale to WWI: a war that devastated Paris, making Notre-Dame an empty shell, the Seine black with ashes and dust; and the gardens and beautiful parks into fields of rubble. I set the action back several decades, to have a technology level equivalent to the Belle Époque with magic; and I added Fallen angels, whose breath and bones and flesh are the living source of magic; and whose power forms the backbone for a network of quasi-feudal Houses who rule over the wreck of Paris. And, hum, because it’s me, I added an extant colonial empire, a press-ganged, angry Vietnamese boy who’s more than he seems; Lucifer Morningstar (because you can’t have a story about Fallen angels without Morningstar); and entirely too many dead bodies.

In short, I mashed so many things together that it started looking a bit like the Frankenstein monster right before the lightning hit; but my fabulous agency (John Berlyne and his partner John Wordsworth) didn’t blink (at least, not too much!), and duly sent out my little novel, called The House of Shattered Wings. And lo and behold, the awesome Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz picked it up, along with a sequel. To say that I’m thrilled is an understatement: Gollancz is a superb publisher, and their list includes many friends of mine—I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Official synopsis:

In HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS, Paris’s streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. De Bodard’s rich storytelling brings three different voices together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a young man wielding spells from the Far East.

Here is more official info at the Bookseller, here at Zeno Towers; and here at Gollancz.

Release is slated for August 2015. You can pre-order here at amazon or Waterstones if you want a shiny hardcover (I’ll work out other vendors later, promise. I don’t need to tell you how crucial pre-orders are to a book’s success–so get in early, get in strong, and make this a big big success). If you don’t feel like pre-ordering right now, no worries. There’ll be plenty of opportunities :p

ETA: and here‘s a fresh new page devoted to the book, with more detailed copy.

More on the book when I have normal (ha! Who am I kidding) non-zero energy levels.

(picture credits: Kirkstall Abbey by Rick Harrison. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License).

A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

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A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere or on this blog, but for what it’s worth… The usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Warning: this is me in ranty mode, not helped by the 3 hours of sleep I got over the past few days (yup, I know that I volunteered for that whole sleepless thing. But doesn’t change much to how I feel…)
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Today’s amusing cookbook

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A guide purporting to be an encyclopaedia of Asian ingredients. Under fish sauce, it recommends the Tiparos and Squid brands as being the best ones. Maybe, if you’re doing Thai cooking? They’re both Thai fish sauces, and for Vietnamese dishes I have to admit I’ve never found them to be much use (the book doesn’t go into the fact that there are huge regional variations on fish sauces, which is odd because it specifies this for soy sauces…).
Bonus points: under “typical dishes”, it lists “larb (Vietnam, Thailand)”. I have no idea about Thailand, but larb sure as heck isn’t a typical Vietnamese dish (in fact, I had to look it up on the Internet, and Wikipedia tends to suggest it’s a Lao dish. Way to go on mixing up all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula, guys).

Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

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So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
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Old disappointing favourites

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So, remember Yoko Tsuno, those bandes dessinées with the Japanese electrical engineer I loved when I was a child? [1] As I was saying in that other blog post, they’ve re-edited them with new material which includes author introductions. This is definitely one of those cases where less is more–to learn that author/artist Roger Leloup created the character because he wanted an exotic Oriental character is definitely… not what I really needed to read (the introduction includes a bit where he says that bringing Yoko back to Japan was difficult because she was no longer exotic, and that Japan was hard because he couldn’t make things up. I haven’t tried to reread that actual BD, but it has ninjas and multiple references to samurai honour and losing face as some sort of ultimate deterrent in Japanese culture. Arg arg arg).

Bonus points for his mention that he gave her a Chinese grandmother because he wanted her to combine Chinese sensibility with Japanese efficiency. Arrrrgggg racial stereotyping much, anyone?


[1] Asian geek with a spaceship who was smarter than the boys, the first time I’d seen that kind of character around. Love at first sight for many reasons.

Books books books

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From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra. A history of Asia (*very* loosely Asia since it includes the Ottoman Empire and bits of Egypt), colonialism and the rise of nationalism/pan-Islamism/pan-Asianism, seen through the eyes of three 19th/20th-Century intellectuals (al-Afghani, Ling Qichao and Rabidranath Tagore) . I am… conflicted about this book.

On the one hand, it’s a welcome and refreshing account of the colonisation/decolonisation of Asia through the eyes of Asians–for people raised in the West and unfamiliar with the blood and greed-drenched history of colonisation, it’s definitely a worthy read, if only because it lays bare the sheer destructive scale of what the Western powers did to Asia (and it’s also worth seeing the repetitions of colonisation patterns in today’s globalisation), and the frustrated, powerless soul-searching of Asians seeking to conciliate the Industrial Revolution ideologies with their own traditions.

On the other hand… I can’t speak for the Indian parts of the accounts (though this article can and isn’t overly pleased about them), but I also found it a very frustrating book, because Mishra distorts facts to suit his theory of unified Asian resistance to the West (to cite just one of them, he cites the invasion of Vietnam by France in 1854 as a sign that China was besieged by Western powers eating into its hegemony–whereas in fact Vietnam had been independent of China for a while and the power balance in the region was a little bit more complicated), and I had no means of judging which bits were accurate. Mishra also quite obviously does not understand how Chinese society worked–to suggest that Confucianism is an alien and artificial ideology (that he grants was deeply embedded in Chinese minds, but in a tone that suggests recent embedding more than millenia-old beliefs) misses the point by a rather wide margin. On the whole, I think it makes for interesting reading, but definitely more for the quotes than for the arguments raised by Mishra.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin: those were the first fantasy books in English I ever read, and so I’m coming back to them loaded with memories. They’re good–they’re very chewy and tackling weighty subject matters while maintaining the outward guise of epic fantasies, and the language is deceptively simple and gorgeous (though looking back at them, the vocabulary is definitely more elaborate than I remembered. I pity my younger self, parsing them through with a dictionary…).

It’s also an interesting reread: I’d never noticed when I first read them, but the role of women in them is appalling. A Wizard of Earthsea is particularly spectacular, its women being either evil sorceresses or smiling domestic goddesses, and most certainly not fit to go adventuring; but The Tombs of Atuan also has disquieting overtones of women’s proper place being in the home rather than wielding political power (Kossil being the embodiment of womanly power, and Arha/Tenar rather a powerless figure when it comes down to it). I can see why Le Guin felt motivated to write Tehanu, but again that takes the approach of making women’s work valuable in and of itself–don’t get me wrong, that’s also rather valuable and not recognised enough, but there’s no reason to forbid women to take up men’s work either…

Physical descriptions of Asians

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Reposted from my twitter feed because I think it’s worth saying:

The physical description of your Asian characters to easily ID them as Asian is not the first thing you should be obsessing about. Basically, this is the most Othering version of describing characters of colour–they’re just like white people, except with different physical features! But it’s not only features that make people “different” , and in fact our differences are often much much more than skin-deep. To whit: I can write (and have written) an entire story that features recognisably Asian people, without a single distinctive physical description. So can Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

(I wonder how much of the emphasis on physical appearance is shaped by our worship of movies/TV series? I sometimes think that Hollywood et al. influence our way of telling stories, not necessarily for the better…)

Quick reviews

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Haven’t done this for a while, but here’s a rundown of the awesome stuff I’ve been reading lately:

-Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “Song of the Body Cartographer” is up at Philippine Genre Stories. Like all of Rochita’s stories, this combines lovely language with awesome characters–and a universe that just begs to be explored (the good news is that Rochita is writing longer stuff set in the same universe!). Fascinating handling of indigenous cultures vs. outsiders and the clashes that follow. Also, I get to be immortalised as a city of wise women–which doesn’t happen every day!

“The House of Aunts” by Zen Cho. Malaysian vampires in high school, but nothing like Twilight! The vampires in question are the pontianak, women who died in children and feed on human flesh; and the youngest among them, Ah Lee, goes to school in human shape–and comes back in the evening, to eat her aunts’ cooking (of fried liver, innards, etc.–this is possibly the story that has the highest body count ever without showing a single murder…) All goes well, until Ah Lee meets a boy… I loved the relationship between her and Ridzual, and the way it was handled–sweet and heartbreaking without being cloying. And the big reveal at the end works so well. I was cheering by the end. That this got left off awards ballot is… a little saddening.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho: OK, I’ll freely admit that romance isn’t my stuff, but this is so sweet and so sharp at the same time that it’s well worth a read. In the London of the Roaring Twenties, writer Jade Yeo struggles to make a living–until her path intersects that of noted writer Sebastian Hardie, with unexpected consequences. I loved seeing a well worn historical period from a non-English point of view (and having the subtle indictment of colonialism as well). Zen has a very sharp eye for detail, which makes the pages of this just fly by (loved that Jade snarkily comments on the quality of Chinese vases in London townhouses, and just loved her relationship with Ravi). Zen is posting one chapter a day on her website, or you can buy the book from amazon or smashwords if you want to support her (well recommended!)

Night, Again, by Linh Dinh: all right, I’ll confess. One of my pet peeves about fiction set in Vietnam is the freaking high number of said fiction that’s set during the Vietnam War (and 90% of the time from an American or White POV). It’s as if the entire country was nothing more than a theatre for shooting Viet Congs and explore PTSD (but not from the Vietnamese point of view, or at least not from a convincing Vietnamese point of view [1]); and also as if the country itself didn’t exist before the war, and wasn’t worthy of mention after the war, which is… freaking annoying I guess? Therefore, it was a relief to find a book that was a. written by Vietnamese, and b. overwhelmingly not about the war.
The stories run a gamut of tones, though most are dark (satire, or just plain horrible). Among my favourites were Nguyen Huy Thiep’s “Without a King”, a mordant portrait of an extended family’s daily life (the title is a reference to the saying “money is king”, and money and lust form a large part of the family’s concerns); Tran Ngoc Tuan’s “The River’s Curse”, which has a strong fantastical element, and a truly horrible ending not because of any gore, but rather because of its realistic portrayal of cowardice mingled with the (ineffective) desire to do well; Pham Thi Hoai’s savage “Nine Down Makes Ten”, a woman’s portrayal of her successive lovers and their failures, and the concluding story, “A Ferry Stop in the Country” by Nguyen Minh Chau, an elegiac portrayal of an invalid watching his son cross the river he’s lived by all his life. The only caveat is that the book is a bit old (the inside cover says 1963, though it’s been re-edited), and that a bunch of the stories feel a bit old. But still, I’d definitely recommend it as a read. Meanwhile, I’m off to read my Tran-Nhut Mandarin Tân mysteries (which sadly, haven’t been translated into English yet).


[1] Here’s a handy guide about how NOT to write about the Vietnamese/American war. Please please don’t make the only Vietnamese characters women who have relationships with American soldiers, who exist to be raped/impregnated/killed… (hello, Watchmen, I’m looking at you…). Also, please please look up the history of Vietnam BEFORE 1968?

Author’s Notes for “Immersion”

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“Immersion”, like many stories, grew out of conversations–specifically with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and several other Asian bloggers/writers such as @requireshate, JY Yang, J Damask/Joyce Chng, @automathic and Zen Cho.
I wanted to write a story about cultural domination; about how the cultural norms from the dominant culture also infect the non-dominant ones; about how globalisation and its products don’t necessarily make the world smaller and communications between cultures easier, but tend to foster a harmful atmosphere in which one culture or subset of cultures (US/Europe, to be specific) takes over the existing ones and remakes everything in its image. That the takeover is subtle, not done by guns but rather through commerce and the diffusion of media, doesn’t make it less visible or excusable: not all wars are waged with weapons and violence; and the more subtle and insidious version of cultural colonisation that’s currently going on in the world is a phenomenon with obvious and damaging impact (and also includes Western tourism in developing countries, which is often intensely problematic and fraught with coloniser attitudes).

The story is also very obviously based on our trip in Vietnam and my rants at the guidebooks which distill a culture in an outsider, monolithic (and many times wildly inaccurate) version: the immersers from Galactic to Rong are guidebooks V2.0. I also imagined their counterpart from Rong to Galactic, something that would make it clear that unbalanced cultural exchanges could lead to severe cultural distortion, as well as rejection of one’s home culture–a phenomenon that’s not always harmful, but is taken to its extreme in Agnes. I also tried to tackle how damaging the imposition of languages and standards of beauty could become, though through lack of space I had to go for a fairly caricatural version of it.

(mild spoilers, plus somewhat long rambles)
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