Some books are best approached without any prior knowledge, without even reading a blurb or recommendation. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale Bright is not one of those books. At least not if – like me – you have no knowledge of Chinese mythology. A cozy sort of buzz surrounds this novella but it was Little Red Reviewer’s recommendation that gave me the final push and made me buy my own copy. Thank you, Andrea, for a shining new author on my bookshelf.
Published by: Immersion Press, 2014
Ebook: 162 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.
Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction is an adventure. When Andrea compared her style to Catherynne M. Valente’s, I was as sold as I could be. Quickly bought and quickly read, I am once more happy that book bloggers exist and nudge me in the right direction at the right time.
Disregarding the advice given by Andrea, I picked up the book and started reading without really caring what it was about. But soon I discovered that certain characters had more than one name, and names fraught with meaning that I didn’t understand. A few pages in, Wikipedia saved my butt. The short paragraphs on the Chinese myths surrounding Houyi, the Archer who shot down the suns and Chang’e, the woman who lives in the moon, are really all you need to get the gist of the story. Thus prepared, I could finally really enjoy the magic that Sriduangkaew weaves on these pages.
It’s hard to choose what to rave about first. But as I’ve already mentioned Cat Valente’s name, let’s begin with the writing style. Simply said, it is gorgeous. Sriduangkaew definitely falls into the vague sub-genre of mythpunk, with her poetic language and beautiful, beautiful descriptions. Her characterization seems effortless, the settings vibrant, and all without overdoing it. There isn’t a single line out of place, not one description too flowery. Opening this little book is like falling into a different world, made up of dreams and gods and a young girl coming of age.
Julienne, ostentatiously the protagonist, goes through an interesting growth. Her actions aren’t always obvious, her past unravels slowly, as does her personality. I enjoyed discovering who she was immensely, but the real stars for me were Houyi, the Archer, and Olivia, the Snake-Woman. None of the characters are what you’d call an open book. You have to discover each of them in turn and that was part of the pleasure. Houyi made the biggest impression on me, simply because she was such an entity of power. The tall woman who wears men’s clothing and is married to the woman in the moon has a tender core, especially when it comes to her niece, Julienne. Olivia, at first a pretty straight-forward baddie, becomes more three-dimensional along the way. And Julienne, who was sort of pale to begin with, turns out to be a fully-formed human being with a past and hopes and dreams.
I spefically didn’t talk about the plot because, (1) I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience, and (2) I thought it was one of the book’s weaker points. Yes, there are twists and turns that are surprising and wonderful. But the breaks between certain points happened too harshly. I was comfy in one scene and, suddenly, in the next we cut to somewhere completely different. Following the time frame was difficult for me, but I always found back into the story relatively quickly. It’s a minor point but, ever since reading this, I’ve been wishing for a full-sized doorstopper novel from Benjanun Sriduangkaew – I’m sure the breaks would be much smoother if she had more time setting up each scene and time period.
After the novella, Scale Bright also includes the three short stories that precede it chronologically. My favorite was “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate”, which tells the story of Xihe, her unhappy marriage and her becoming the mother of suns. The entire story was gripping and gorgeous, the characters filled with strength and anger and hope, I couldn’t stop reading. Considering how short it is, I am also amazed at how much character growth happens. The author really knows how to use language in its most effective way.
“Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” tells the love story of Houyi and Chang’e and is probably the one you should read before Scale Bright, as it gives a good background on who Julienne’s aunts are. Even gods, it seems, don’t have an easy time when they want a same-sex marriage but Houyi has some awesome lines about why she refuses to wear women’s clothes or change her appearance into that of a man. I really giggled at her comebacks to some of the stupid things people say to her. Altogether, I must admit this was my least favorite of the short stories (which doesn’t say much as it’s still pretty damn good).
“Chang’e Dashes from the Moon” was my second favorite, because Houyi totally rocked her part of the story. It must be a taste thing because I’m suspicious of how much I adored Houyi every time she showed up. This is supposed to be Chang’e’s chance to shine, and she does, but in my opinion Houyi steals the show.
This review was very rambly and not exactly coherent but I’ve noticed that all the best books end up with this kind of review from me. It’s because my head is so full of thoughts that I can’t write a straight sentence. But, as you also know, it is the mark of an excellent book that it evokes so much emotion. I’ll be watching out closely for Sriduangkaew’s next publication, whether it’s a short story, another novella, or – please, please, please – a novel.
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent