Genres: Fantasy, Short Stories, Young Adult
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This is definitely one of the better YA short story collections I have read. As with all anthologies, some stories are much stronger than others, but I enjoyed far more than I disliked. Plus, it was just so great to see the exploration of mythologies we don’t often see in the mainstream. My average rating over the fifteen stories was 3.7.
A few years ago, collections like these might have just been a way for me to go on some literary tourism of other cultures, but it’s now very important to me on a personal level. My two sons are mixed race – Japanese and British – and it is so so important to me that they see their Japanese heritage represented in all forms of art and media.
And, honestly, it’s just so refreshing to see fantasy stories outside of the vaguely-Medieval Euro-centric books we’ve come to expect. There’s a whole world of fascinating history and culture out there – it’s time to explore it!
Forbidden Fruit by Roshani Chokshi – 5 teacups
The collection gets off to a bang with this gorgeous Filipino fairy tale and love story. I didn’t love Chokshi’s first novel The Star-Touched Queen, but I have to say that her flowery, poetic writing works MUCH better in a short story. It’s lush and vivid, raising goosebumps along my arms at its end. A goddess falls in love with a human man – oh, what could possibly go wrong?
It was an ill-fated thing to claim that a heart is safe. Hearts are rebellious. The moment they feel trapped, they will strain against their bindings.
Olivia’s Table by Alyssa Wong – 4 teacups
This was a little strange, but in the best possible way. Wong takes on the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in her story. A young girl who has lost her beloved mother makes it her duty to feed crowds of ghosts. It’s a tale about grief, told in sweet, subtle interactions. There is something so wonderful and sad about this uniting of the living and the dead through food.
Don’t talk to strangers, Mom had said, over and over. And don’t trust the ghosts, especially not during the Ghost Festival.
Steel Skin by Lori M. Lee – 3.5 teacups
If I was rating the ending alone, this would probably get five stars. It’s a science-fiction story with androids, but also about grief and the loss of a loved one. There’s the familial aspect: the narrator’s relationship with her father hasn’t been the same since her mother died; and also a mystery aspect: she teams up with a friend to uncover the truth behind the androids that were recalled. For the most part, I glided through the story, kinda enjoying it but not really loving it like the previous two. And then the ending happened. Perfection.
And now that she knew the truth, who would she decide to be?
Still Star-Crossed by Sona Charaipotra – 2 teacups
It’s a shame about this one because it took some interesting steps but stopped very abruptly and strangely. I turned the page and was shocked to discover that it was over! It’s a Punjabi folktale retelling and the authors explanation for the story was really interesting, but I didn’t think her intentions came across at all. The main guy was pretty creepy, too.
You don’t know, Bebo, what you’ll do,” my mother says, a sudden anger simmering under her words. “You don’t know how to choose until you’re right there, on the precipice, giving away your everything for something that may be real or may be a shadow, a ghost you’re chasing.”
The Counting of Vermillion Beads by Aliette De Bodard – 4 teacups
Like a lot of these stories, this one was quite weird. Though I found myself really liking it. I also found myself doing some reading into the Vietnamese story of Tam and Cam, which starts like something of a Cinderella tale, in which a jealous sister envies the other’s beauty and it leads to tragedy. Here, Bodard rewrites it with a more positive spin, showing the power of sibling love above all else.
“So many precious places to discover. Come on, Lil’sis. Let’s go see them together.”
The Land of the Morning Calm by E. C. Myers – 5 teacups
Aww. This was one seriously emotional, beautiful story about loss and gaming. As gaming is such an important part of Korean culture, it was great to see it explored here. And while I usually find video game-centred stories too light and silly, Myers did a fantastic job of showing how a game can be really important for someone. It can be a much-needed escape, a creativity outlet, or a doorway to an unending universe. I liked this story so much because it took something I don’t usually love and did something new and deeply moving with it.
“I finally know how it ends.”
The Smile by Aisha Saeed – 4 teacups
Well, I always like a good feminist fairytale! And I LOVE what Saeed did with this one. She takes a tragic love story and rewrites it to give a king’s courtesan choice, freedom and agency. It’s a gorgeously-written South Asian addition, and somehow both happy and sad. Happy, because it is about a woman finally getting to make her own choices and understanding what love really is. But sad, because much must be given up for the sake of freedom.
The prince always said I belonged to him. I had thought this word protected me and kept me safe, but now I understood. Belonging meant he could place me wherever he liked, whether in his bed or in this dank tower. Belonging is not love. It never was.
Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers by Preeti Chhibber – 3 teacups
This was okay. I enjoyed the alternating between Hindu myths and a modern-day celebration of Navaratri, a holiday I had never heard of before. But, though educational, I didn’t feel as much of a spark with this one as I did with the others. It was light, but fairly bland. It seemed a little too long, too.
Nothing into All by Renée Ahdieh – 4 teacups
I really enjoyed this one! It’s a retelling of the Korean folktale Goblin Treasure and I loved what the author did with it. A girl makes a trade for goblin magic so she can achieve her dream of going away to music school, but her brother becomes angry that she isn’t using the magic to make gold that could benefit the family. It’s a tale about siblings, forgiveness, the decisions we make and how bad actions can be hiding a good person.
It is Chun’s fault he has become a thief. But please let him have the chance to make it right. Give him the chance to become a great man.
Spear Carrier by Rahul Kanakia – 2 teacups
Too long and emotionless for my tastes. I felt like this story was droning on and on in parts, and I neither learned something new from it, nor experienced an emotional response to it. The protagonist goes on and on about wanting to be a hero, and about life and death, and I just took so little away from reading it.
Code of Honor by Melissa de la Cruz – 2 teacups
There was a definite slip right around this later middle part of the book. My two least favourite stories were lumped together here. Melissa de la Cruz’s work seemed to be a companion to her Blue Bloods series, which I have not read and don’t particularly have any interest in. This story was about Filipino aswangs – vampires witches – and contained a lot of gore and gruesomeness, but not a lot of emotion. A potentially interesting concept that left me feeling cold.
“I almost murdered a girl yesterday.”
Bullet, Butterfly by Elsie Chapman – 4 teacups
Gorgeous. Chapman retells the Chinese tale of the Butterfly Lovers – a “tragic tale of two young lovers kept apart by familial duty”. Set during a war, this reimagining sees a boy posing as a girl and falling in love with another girl called Zhu. The author breathes new life into a very old concept – that of forbidden love and being torn between duty and what your heart truly wants. Beautifully-written with a touching ending.
“Promise me, Lin,” she said, “that wherever we end up stationed, we’ll stay alive long enough to find each other again, to be friends always.”
Daughter of the Sun by Shveta Thakrar – 4 teacups
Inspired by two stories from The Mahabharata, this is a powerful feminist tale about sticking to your guns and putting your true passion first. Always. I loved reading about the two stories this was based on – about “Savitri and Satyavan” and “Ganga and Shantanu”. The theme of a smart woman cleverly tricking a god or demon or jinni seems to come up a lot in South Asian folktales and I must confess: I like it.
Together, her voice sparkling like diamond dust, his smooth as clove smoke, they ensorcelled the audience as they had ensorcelled each other.
The Crimson Cloak by Cindy Pon – 5 teacups
Oh, I loved this! I’m not sure why but I sometimes love it when the narrator speaks directly to the reader with a conspiratorial wink (You can never out wait a goddess, Dear Reader. I have all the time in the world.). In this, Pon retells “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”, which is itself a wonderful folktale, but here becomes even more so. It’s very romantic, definitely a love story, but it’s a good one. The author gives a voice to the mostly silent weaver girl in this version, allowing her to tell the story from her perspective. I couldn’t stop smiling as she tells us:
“All the storytellers get it wrong.”
Eyes like Candlelight by Julie Kagawa – 4 teacups
I wonder if this story has anything to do with Kagawa’s upcoming novel Shadow of The Fox because it is also about foxes (well, kitsunes, to be precise). Takeo, the protagonist in this story, is an extremely likable hero and we get pulled along for an adventure with one of Japan’s most loved mythical creatures: kitsunes. Typically, human/fox shapeshifters. It’s also a little creepy, too. Kagawa captures the eerie small-town setting perfectly and, let’s not lie, there’s something deeply unsettling about never knowing whether a human is really a human or something else.
Takeo never saw the fox again. But sometimes, on warm evenings when he was outside, he could almost imagine he was being watched.
Overall, this was a stunning anthology. I would really love to see more fantasy short story collections exploring mythologies around the world with own voices authors. If you like fantasy and you like short stories, I highly recommend these.