Sunday, October 12, 2014

Scale-Bright - Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew has attracted more than a bit of attention with her short fiction in the past couple of years. Her stories have been published in different anthologies and magazines but so far no novel or collection has appeared. In August, Immersion Press published a novella by Sriduangkaew, the first publication in book form that I know of. My copy is a very nice hardcover. Thankfully they've paid a bit more attention to the cover art this time around. The only other book I own by this publisher is Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting. The cover of that novella doesn't do it any favours. Scale-Bright is related to three other pieces of short fiction by Sriduangkaew. She collected these in the sampler The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, which is available in electronic format only. I haven't read them myself but it may be a good idea to do so before attempting this novella. There is obviously a bit of backstory here.

Scale-Bright is set in contemporary Hong Kong were Julienne is trying to make a living. She has had an interesting childhood to say the least. Descended from an immortal being, she is currently watched over by two aunts who are anything but ordinary. It is not surprising that extraordinary things happen to Julienne. For those who can see, Hong Kong is crawling with supernatural beings, some of which have old scores to settle. Julienne is quickly caught up in one such conflict. She would be wise to stay out of it but her heart tells her otherwise.

I must admit some of this novella went right over my head, complete with that whooshing sound you hear when it is blatantly obvious you've missed something. Scale-Bright is obviously rooted in Chinese mythology of which I know hardly anything. That is not to say I didn't get any of it. Zhu Bajie for instance is so well known even I have heard of him. His encounter with the Goddess of the moon, another important character in the story, is probably one of the more well known references in Scale-Bright. Sriduangkaew puts in a bit of humour when she draws the parallel with the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor Zhu Bajie still doesn't have a way with women it would seem.  I got a little bit of the mythological roots of the story but still can't escape the impression that you can get a lot more out of it than I did if you're a bit better versed in Chinese mythology.

That is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy for an ignorant westerner such as myself. Sriduangkaew repackages these myths in a modern urban fantasy. It is partly a love story, with a bit of coming of age mixed in. I guess the most important lesson Julienne learns in the novella is that it is fine to want things for yourself. She has the tendency to not want to be a bother to her aunts or other people in general. Julienne's background remains a bit vague but it is clear she has some pretty serious mental health issues and she struggles with this throughout the book. She is attracted to women but can't seem to find one to form a stable relationship with. To make matters even more complicated there is a supernatural attraction to a demon. In short. Julienne is a bit of a mess and that makes her an interesting character. She is decidedly unpredictable, sometimes rash or emotional and oh so brave. An unlikely heroine perhaps but a joy to read nevertheless.

As with the other stories by Sriduangkaew I've read, stylistically it is amazing. I frequently came across sentences that I just had to read twice, not because I didn't understand them, but simply because they were so beautifully written. It was perhaps a bit more accessible than Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods, which is very demanding on the reader, but definitely a work that can be enjoyed for more than plot and characters. A little sample from the very beginning of the novel, where Sriduangkaew poses the question that is central to the plot:
Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.

He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute.

Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”

Chapter 1.1
I loved this novella, even if it left me with the feeling I missed a lot of what Sriduangkaew put into it. I don't consider that a problem besides the obvious blind spot in my knowledge of Chinese mythology. Books can be read again and Scale-Bright is one of those pieces that probably should be read several times to fully appreciate it. I'm not entirely sure that I would recommend this novella as an entry point but I will say that if you haven't already read some of her stories, you are missing out. Benjanun Sriduangkaew once again shows that she is a major talent in speculative fiction. I for one, can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Book Details
Title: Scale-Bright
Author: Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Publisher: Immersion Press
Pages: 98
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9563924-9-7
First published: 2014

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