Queer Imperial Chinese fantasy about ambition and power
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. I also received a paperback copy of this book from Paperchain Bookstore‘s recent VIP science fiction and fantasy After Dark event which came with a signed bookplate. It was a really fun event with some local fantasy authors, however I have to say it is dangerous having a bookshop open with wines on offer because it turns out a little loss of inhibition means buying a lot more books!
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a fantasy novel set in Imperial China. The story is told from two perspectives: an orphaned girl who appropriates her brother Zhu Chongba’s identity in pursuit of the great destiny he was promised and a eunuch called Ouyang whose loyalty to the Mongols who adopted him is undermined by his vow to avenge his family.
This is an epic novel that explores the idea of fate, and how much our lives are predetermined and how much our determination can shape our lives. Zhu was a fascinating character who refreshingly pursues ambition using wits, willpower and an impeccable sense of timing. Parker-Chan challenges the reader to consider gender identity from very unique perspectives: being forced to assume a gender to survive, and having your sex stolen from you without your consent. I really liked that in this book, ambition trumps everything and I felt that this made the character’s motivations really refreshing. Parker-Chan’s characters are surprising in their ruthlessness and I enjoyed how they used hardship as a springboard to greatness, no matter the moral implications. The magic in this book is really understated and Parker-Chan did an excellent job maintaining ambiguity about who is responsible for fate and who grants the power to conjure light.
I am actually a bit reluctant to write much more about this book because it is such a journey. A ground-breaking addition to the fantasy genre, and I cannot way for part 2 of this duology.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.
“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.
Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.
I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the difference a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.
Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.
A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.
Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence
Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.
“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.
As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.
However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.
This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.
I’ve been saving this book to read for ages because I knew, I just KNEW, it was going to be good. I have a soft spot for science fiction, but one thing that really bugs me about science fiction is how American it always is. For some reason, first contact with extra-terrestrials always seems to happen in America and, considering it’s a big wide world out there, I’ve always found it a bit hard to believe that only America has the technology, the wherewithal, the interest in making that first contact. So when I found out that a Chinese science fiction novel won the Hugo award, I knew that I would have to read this book.
“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated into English by Ken Liu, is a science fiction novel that begins in China during the cultural revolution. It is the first in a series of three books called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. Ye Winjie, an astrophysics graduate, watches her father be beaten to death by Red Guards. After she is sent to Inner Mongolia to join a labour, an incident occurs that puts her life and future at risk. However, she is thrown a lifeline when she is given the opportunity to join a mysterious military communications centre. There’s only one catch: she will have to stay there the rest of the life. Decades later, a nanotechnology researcher called Wang Miao is asked to assist in the investigation of the deaths of several scientists. After experiencing some inexplicable disturbances in his vision, he decides to relax by playing a game he has seen others play: a virtual reality game called Three Body.
This book is the best science fiction novel I have read in a very long time. It is simply superb. If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll enjoy this – I promise you. Cixin Liu is a genius, the science in this book is fascinating, the writing is great (with plenty of helpful but unobtrusive footnotes from the translator) and I found myself whispering “Wow.” after every chapter I finished.
I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese fiction recently, and there are two themes that I almost always notice. One – the stories often centre in some way on the Cultural Revolution. Two – the writing is excellent. I think the only people who would not enjoy this book are people who are not frequent readers of the science fiction genre. Some may think that the characters aren’t interesting or developed enough, but personally I think that the author has kept the characters a little out of focus so that it’s easier for people to relate to them, and also so that the thrust of the story is front and centre.
This book was excellent. It’s up there with the top three books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read the rest in the series. I’ve already mailed it to the next person insisting they read it. It was unbelievably refreshing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.
“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.
This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.
I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.
I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.