New Fantasy and Science Fiction from China

English-speaking fans of speculative fiction have been barely aware of the contributions to the genre from China. By the time The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu was translated into English, it had already been widely popular in Asia for almost ten years. The excellent translation by Ken Liu, who has his own body of F/SF work in English, was an enormous success, and became the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award, in 2015. This was followed by Ken Liu’s translations of the other novels in Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of the Earth’s Past” trilogy. Most recently there is a short story collection called The Wandering Earth, translated by five different people, including Ken Liu.

Now there seems to be a small wave of fantasy novels from China. Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang) is series of interconnected stories about a cryptozoologist who investigates encounters between humans and various types of “beasts,” who usually appear human but are eventually revealed to have strange and often fatal habits. (On an oddly similar note, from Korea comes The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim (translated by Sean Lin Halbert), an interconnected series of short stories detailing encounters, mostly by phone, between people with odd abilities and the rather boring office worker in charge of the filing cabinet where their cases are catalogued.) Both books are full of metaphor exploring what it means to be human, and offer pointed, barely-concealed criticism of those who call themselves human. Both are also deeply weird.

Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi (translated by Shelly Bryant) is the story of a poet who grows away from his exciting youth as a protestor and into an unhappy and emotionally distant man seeking empty sexual encounters. The event he protested, the appearance of a “nine-story pile of excrement” in the town square, is clearly a metaphor for the events in Tiananmen Square. The narrative seamlessly and beautifully switches timelines between his past and a present in which he seems to have stumbled into a sort of utopia. This “dystopian meditation on art and freedom” was supposedly banned in China.

Perhaps if one wants to try to understand a culture through its speculative fiction, it might be better to go for the fun stuff, though at this point that is hard to find. I am having a lot of fun with Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (translated by Suika). But I suspect that neither of these actually qualifies as great literature. I also quite enjoyed Julia Lovell’s translation of Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’En. At least no one can argue that a retelling, even vastly abridged, of a 400-year-old Chinese classic tale, doesn’t count as important literature.

These books are all expertly translated and (mostly) seem to me to be intended as high literary works of fiction, more like “magical realism” than belonging to the genre we call fantasy. They are all beautifully written and inexplicably surreal, leaving me wondering whether they are representative of Chinese thought or amazing works from creatively demented outsiders.

Boys Run the Riot by Keito Gaku

Transgender manga artist Keito Gaku won the 77th Tetsuya Chiba Prize for a one-shot manga about a transgender teen. His four-volume series based on that story, Boys Run the Riot, was released in Japan in 2020. In an interview in the back of Volume One, Gaku says that he wanted the book to be about, not just coming out as transgender, but about the way fashion is related to identity and gender. The fourth and final volume of the English translation of Boys Run the Riot is now available, and includes the earlier story, called Light.

The protagonist, Ryo, says he was “born in a healthy female body,” but hates his schoolgirl uniform because he doesn’t want to be treated like a girl and doesn’t feel at ease in a body identifiable as female. Things begin to change, not necessarily for the better, when he meets a new classmate, Jin, who shares his taste in fashion. Jin convinces Ryo to start a fashion design “brand” with him, saying, “Let’s destroy all their stupid assumptions with our clothes.” They call it Boys Run the Riot.

The story is based somewhat on the experiences of the author, though he never started a fashion brand. It may reflect some of the experiences of transgender kids worldwide, though some experiences, like the use of pronouns in Japanese and gendered school uniforms, might be unique. The result is a complicated and intensely personal story. It is a vivid exploration of the way appearance influences our attitudes and prejudices, and of how difficult it can be to live outside of societal expectations.

“Living freely also comes with sacrifices. If you still want to do it, then please, don’t give up,” Keito Gaku.

Two Childhood Romances for Grown-ups

Ferryman by Scottish writer Claire McFall and Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker (Seanan McGuire) are both beautifully written fantasies with protagonists who seem to me much younger than the teenagers they’re supposed to be. Both stories are told from the perspective of the wise older women who wrote them, providing insight into the growth of their young protagonists. But the strength of both books is the descriptions. All the teens journey through fantasy worlds so intricate and surprising, that their landscapes becomes both character and metaphor.

Along the Saltwise Sea is the second novella in the Up-and-Under Series. (A rather delightful synopsis of the first novella is provided as part of this new book, but the first book, Over the Woodward Wall is still available.) It involves two children of opposite temperament and upbringing who have together fallen over a Wall into another world. Wild Zeb and cautious Avery seem to be not so much falling in love as bonding by the necessity of their adventures. As they navigate the hazardous and ever-changing world they find themselves in, they need to learn to understand each other and, as a result, themselves.

Ferryman is a straight-forward romance between a very naïve teenage girl named Dylan and a person who calls himself Tristan, whose job it is to guide her across the wasteland between death and eternal life. It’s an intriguing idea, and the landscape of Dylan’s voyage is both ordinary and inexplicably surreal. This purgatory, it seems, is heart-wrenchingly dangerous and, in the end, possibly not worth surviving. The romance broke no new ground for me in the magical-being-falling-in-love-with-ordinary-teen-girl genre, but I very much liked the book’s unique and thought-provoking exploration of the landscape of heaven and hell.

The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu

Ropa Moyo is a fourteen-year-old high school dropout with green dreadlocks, black lipstick, and a massive attitude fueled by a ferocious intelligence. She has taken over her grandmother’s marginally profitable business as a ghost-talker, conversations which are made possible by finding the right tune on a Zimbabwean instrument called a mbira. She lives in a caravan parked outside a near-future ruined Edinburgh. Her biggest problems are sore feet from delivering messages from beyond the grave to their paying living relatives, keeping her little sister in school, and caring for her grandmother. Then she runs into a ghost who begs her to find her living son, who has disappeared.

The Library of the Dead would be Ropa’s dream come true, if she weren’t a trespasser on ground reserved for a privileged few. It’s a repository of all magical knowledge—along with the grave of David Hume—in a carved-out cavern below Calton Hill. Fortunately, some members are willing to bend the rules just a little to provide her with the dense textbooks she needs to learn to work magic. The ghost’s missing child is part of a series of disappearances, and no one but Ropa and her two friends from the Library, Priya and Jomo, seem willing to try to find the lost children.

This is a wonderful book with a fresh new voice. The author, T.L. Huchu, was born in Zimbabwe, but lived most of his life in Edinburgh. His familiarity with both cultures results in an unforgettable strange world, narrated by a completely realistic voice. I don’t think this is the last adventure for Ropa and her friends. Tiny print on the title page labels this book as “Edinburgh Nights Book One.”

Holiday Hours!

Still working on your holiday shopping? Just want to come in and do some relaxing browsing? Then take note – we’ve got a few changes over the next couple of weeks.

Christmas Eve – Friday, December 24th Noon – 3pm

Christmas Day – Saturday, December 25th Closed

New Year’s Eve – Friday, December 31st Noon – 4pm

New Year’s Day – Saturday, January 1st Regular hours

Mo Dao Zu Shi, translated by Suika

Fans of the epic Chinese fantasy series ‘The Untamed’ will be happy to hear that the first volume of the official, uncensored English translation of the novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu is now available. The book has been given the somewhat unromantic title of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I am not sure how many volumes are planned, but this first volume covers chapters 1 through 32, and includes a long appendix with handy information about the characters, the language, and Daoist Chinese cultivation magic.

Mo Dao Zu Shi began as a 113-chapter serialized web novel in China. The story is an old-fashioned romance, of the how-long-can-you-keep-the-two-of-them-apart variety, between two young men who practice different forms of cultivation magic. It has been extremely popular, spawning an on-line manhua (Chinese graphic novel) and three seasons of an animated series, all of which have been translated only by fans. Word has spread worldwide through thousands of fanfic stories on An Archive of Our Own. This is the first official and edited English translation.

Compared to the 50-episode live-action drama, the book is unexpectedly light hearted. The two guys are adorable, and there’s none of the weight of tragedy that hangs over ‘The Untamed’ from the very beginning. The seeds of later sorrows are there, however, so it’s likely that the story will turn darker in later volumes. The story that is unfolding underneath the romance is a compelling martial arts fantasy almost as complex as ‘Game of Thrones’ though, sadly, not as well written. I found it lots of fun to read, but I am a huge fan of ‘The Untamed,’ and am likely biased.

Mo Dao Zu Shi, Volume One, trade paperback, $19.99

Buckaroo Banzai’s second adventure arrives on the shelves at last

Fans of the 1984 film and book The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension will be thrilled to learn that, finally, the chronicles of the world-famous Buckaroo Banzai, MD, GBE (adventurer, scientist, rock star, race car driver, and neurosurgeon) are being continued. As promised at the end of the film, the title of the next adventure is Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League: A Compendium of Evils. The author, as with the first book, is Earl Mac Rauch, but the cover says it was written by The Reno Kid with the assistance of E. M. Rauch, who claims to be a Professor of Oratory at the Banzai Institute.

Pretending that the book was actually written by one of its characters is only the first layer of fun. It is also assumed that the reader lives in the world that our hero Buckaroo (and his band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers) recently saved from the Lectroids from the 8th dimension. The book claims to be a very serious attempt to document various misunderstood historical events surrounding its mysterious and highly accomplished protagonist.

Sadly, this includes a Preface, written in hilariously unreadable faux academic-ese, and an ongoing attempt to explain or revise history citing a variety of (non-existent, I hope) academic sources. The well-informed reader will see through the supposed scientific objectivity, but it makes very dense reading. I must confess that I have not yet finished the book. Readers unfamiliar with the Buckaroo Banzai legend will likely be completely lost.

This is a great Christmas present for those who are already fans. Others are advised to watch the film and become fans as soon as possible.

Buckaroo Banzai, etc, hardcover, $29.99

The Bookshop of Dust and Dreams by Mindy Thompson

As a bookseller, any story that features a bookstore makes me happy, but this time-travelling fantasy really stands out. The bookshop in question is named Rhyme and Reason, and is run by our teenage protagonist, Poppy Fulbright’s, father. It is sentient and brimming with its own magic, though it can communicate only by changing the décor and occasionally writing quotes from books on a little blackboard. Its front door opens to customers who need a haven in both the near future and recent past. Poppy’s family’s door opens to 1944 New York, where World War Two is still raging. 

Poppy loves the bookshop (which clearly loves her back) and wants someday to be a Shopkeeper like her father, though her older brother is supposed to inherit the shop. But Poppy’s brother is messing up the bookshop’s magic with his grief over his closest friend’s death in the War overseas. When her father falls ill, it is up to Poppy to keep the shop open and happy. But things are far more broken that she can imagine. 

Though the book is aimed at “upper middle grade” readers, the language is elegant and eloquent. The story is deep and emotionally complex but, while there are adults whose actions are important, it never leaves Poppy’s point of view. The author is willing to tackle the consequences of everyone’s actions in a way rarely seen in books for kids. The bittersweet ending makes the book, I think, a potential contender for the Newbery Award. 

Bookshop of Dust and Dreams, hardcover, $16.99

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

I’ve been a fan of Anne Ursu since reading her first fantasy for young adults, The Shadow Thieves, some years ago. I love her simple but elegant style, that never talks down to kids. I hadn’t known, until the arrival of The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, that she is a local writer, currently teaching at Hamline University.

In the land of Dragomir, there is a dire need for sorcerers to fight the Dread, remnants of spells left behind by the war with the neighboring kingdom’s witches two hundred years ago. All boys with the slightest inclination toward magic are given vast wealth and scrupulous training. For the girls, though, it is an entirely different matter. After Marya’s brother is tested for magical potential, she receives a letter consigning her to the Dragomir Academy for Troubled Girls.

This is a story that has been told before–a girl coming of age in a place where men are the only people who are trusted with magic–but it’s rarely been so well-told for a younger audience. (For a grown-up version, see The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.) Marya is both resourceful and naïve, willing to question what she is told but still prone to believing the adults in authority. She has many things to be angry about, but never resorts to sulking about the unfairness. As Marya sorts through the things about herself that she needs to change and the things about the world that cause her problems but are not actually her fault, the young (or older) reader might recognize something of her in themselves.

The Way of the Argosi by Sebastian De Castell

Every now and then, a reader needs to step away from great literature, or horror as metaphor, or fantasy that reflects the end of civilization, and pick up an old-fashioned, sword-and-sorcery adventure. I have been a fan of Canadian writer Sebastian De Castell since discovering his four-book Greatcoats Series. Since then, there has been the Spellslinger Series, which has six books and, now, Way of the Argosi.

De Castell knows how to deliver a page-turning adventure with just the right mixture of humor, wisdom, and suspense. His protagonists go through, perhaps, way more physical and emotional trauma than is reasonable but, then again, they’re heroes. They tell their stories in first person, so you know that they won’t actually die. They also never leave horrible cliffhangers at the end of a book.

Way of the Argosi features a female hero who was a minor character in a Spellslinger book, and she is no more unbelievable than De Castell’s other heroes. She is incredibly resourceful for a teenager who is abandoned (three times), tortured, hated, and constantly on the edge of starvation. Her luck changes, sort of, when she meets a wandering, disreputable-looking dude, who calls himself an Argosi. It looks to be the beginning of many exciting, dangerous, and borderline insane adventures, which doubtlessly will continue in a new series. In fact, Book Two is called Fall of the Argosi, and should be arriving soon.

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino

This book comes highly recommended by Neil Gaiman, who reports in the forward that it was Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite book as a teenager, and was a huge influence on his life and films. It took me a little while to get into it because I was expecting a children’s story, and it is not, really. It is instead a series of simple but profound philosophy lessons, written in 1937 and aimed at young teenage Japanese boys.

The story, such as it is, is about fifteen-year-old Jun’ichi, who is called Copper (short for Copernicus). His father is deceased, so his uncle writes long letters to him, more or less to give him advice and support. The book alternates between Copper’s fairly mundane school days and the uncle’s analysis of them. His uncle has a good deal of understanding and wisdom, but not exactly what you might expect. This is not an American story. It is already assumed that Copper knows how to study in school and respect his teachers and elders. It is obvious that fitting in, overcoming differences, and coping with his father’s death are considered fairly trivial. Romance doesn’t even come up.

Instead, Copper learns lessons from history, ethics, and philosophy. Standing on a rooftop in Tokyo, in a scene that seemed familiar from many anime, he realizes his own insignificance. He learns about greatness and the misuse of power from the life of Napoleon. He learns about poverty and wealth, cowardice and taking responsibility, and the interconnectedness of all human beings. But mostly, in the course of his lessons, he decides that, no matter what, he must work hard to grow up, so that he can become a “great example of human being.” This, too, should be a familiar theme to anyone who watches anime, from Miyazaki’s films to Naruto and My Hero Academia.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

The cover copy states that “hope is a fragile thing,” yet this brilliant little book is full of it. Despite having an overwhelming number of things to despair about, the narrator, Tetley Abednego, feels herself beloved and living in a most wonderful place.

Tetley’s world is a dire post-climate-change future where dry land no longer exists and only a few humans, mostly those with boats, survived. But some of the poorest people seemingly found a floating pile of all of the unused things from our age, which had inexplicably been sorted by type. Tetley lives on this floating Garbagetown, well after the environmental disasters and the Great Sorting. She is born in Candle Hole, walks to Electric City to get her name, and travels as far as Pill Hill to find her destiny.

Everywhere she looks on her island of garbage, Tetley sees beauty and love. There are gorgeous sunsets over mounds of partly-used candles, lovely colors in backlit piles of pill bottles, amazing creatures (many dangerous), and interesting humans (who mostly hate her). The book is a reminder that even people living in circumstances that seem impossible can find happiness and moments of poetic beauty. It gives me hope that the world my generation (which Tetley calls the Fuckwits) is leaving behind will not be entirely filled with horror.

The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

This is a second novel for Byrne, whose first novel, The Girl in the Road, won the Tiptree (now Otherwise) Award in 2015. It is a dense, disturbing work, spanning two millennia and three human civilizations: a well-researched Mayan realm called Toyna in 1012, modern Belize in 2012, and a world-spanning future in 3012. The civilizations in all three eras are poised on the brink of change and full of unacknowledged cruelty. The author posts a trigger warning for self-cutting, but not for human sacrifice, euthanasia/murder, or the individual attainment of another world, called Xibalba, which looked to me very much like suicide.

The protagonists in all three eras live with the philosophy that they, personally, if not all of humanity, do not belong in what we would call the real world. They center their lives around the possibility of reaching Xibalba, a place of fear and wonder, the true realm. In 1012, this seems to be only for the Mayan nobility, but by 3012 everyone lives for this goal, traveling constantly, mostly on foot, trying to find their own, personal entrance to that place where they truly belong. In a nice interweaving of stories, each civilization has been inspired by the ideas and accomplishments, slowly adopted over time, of the protagonists of the previous eras.

The world of 3012 is richly visualized and, to me, the most interesting part of the story, though the characters exist mostly to describe how they live. The civilization seems almost a utopia: with complete freedom to change gender, race, culture, and sexual orientation; worldwide wireless communication; and equal sharing of resources. But there are far fewer people, and they must use advanced technology and ongoing genetic engineering to survive the harsh climate. They have given up all personal possessions and also, sadly, all permanent ties with others. Like many well-imagined utopias, it raises questions about which parts of being human are essential and explores the place of humanity in the universe.

Burn by Patrick Ness

I have been a fan of British-American author Patrick Ness’ books since The Knife of Never Letting Go, which won the Tiptree (now Otherwise) Award in 2008. He also wrote another of my favorite fantasy books, A Monster Calls. His books are marketed for young adults but are deep and complex, and never hold back on the ugliness that some people create for themselves and their children. His teenage protagonists don’t so much learn to get over their problems as learn to go on living anyway.

Burn is no exception, living up to the cover copy which states, “How does the world end? It ends in fire.” It takes place in a fictional 1957 Frome, Washington threatened more by nuclear war than the powerful dragons which have mostly withdrawn to the Dragon Wastes of northern Canada. The end of the world will involve three teenagers; Sarah whose dead mother was Black, Jason whose mother died in a Japanese internment camp, and “Malcolm” who was raised by a pro-dragon cult to be an assassin (and is also gay). There is also Kazimir who, at 200 years old, is probably still a teenage dragon.

If you want a book where teenagers resolve their insecurities by falling in love or becoming heroes, you will be disappointed. This is a rich fantasy full of horror and wonder. It is a story of worlds within worlds, where an ancient rivalry between dragon nature and humanity is played out over millennia and where adolescent problems are just part of life.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Fatma el-Sha’awari, of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, prefers to wear European suits, always impeccably matched with shirt, tie, and bowler hat, of course. Since the 1912 Cairo in need of magical protection is a colorful and diverse city, host to people and magical beings from all over the world, this does not stand out. Well, not very much, anyway.

This is P. Djeli Clark’s first novel, but Agent Fatma and the magical cases she solves have appeared in several novellas (available at Tor.com). It is not the first appearance of Clark’s vibrant version of Cairo, either. This Cairo has been transformed into a world power by the emergence of magic brought about four decades ago by the genius magician Al-Jahiz. It is a fascinating place, run with the help of clockwork artificial intelligence and powered by magic and steam.

But this might be Agent Fatma’s toughest case yet. A person claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned, is terrorizing the people and djinn of Cairo, beginning by murdering an entire secret society of Englishmen dedicated to preserving the wisdom of the original Al-Jahiz. Plus, only slightly less concerning, Agent Fatma, who is famous for always working alone, has been saddled with a partner, a hijab-wearing new trainee who really admires her detective work.

The murder investigation makes a tense and entertaining read, highly recommended particularly for fans of snarky magical detectives like Ben Aaronivich’s Peter Grant.