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.
When I first came across Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s writing last year I fell in love with her writing. Her style and voice are fantastic and I think she’s one of the most exciting short fiction writers to have emerged in the field in the past few years. When the author asked on Twitter whether anyone wanted an ARC of her new novella Scale-Bright I couldn’t raise my hand quick enough. A retelling of an old Chinese tale and a sequel to an earlier retelling of a Chinese legend with a gender twist, Scale-Bright sounded like an amazing story. And it was. I loved it whole-heartedly.
Scale-Bright is a wonderful story that is gorgeously told. Sriduangkaew writes a rich prose, providing beautiful visuals that are often surprisingly tangible; in one scene Houyi is cooking and I actually found myself hungry after reading it. Julienne’s Hong Kong steams off the page, but so does Olivia’s banbuduo, the place between, which is just as vivid and even more entrancing for its strangeness. The Gods’ abode is otherworldly and celestial, yet it is not a kind or safe place. Throughout the narrative there is a sense that nothing – and no-one – is as it seems, something that is reinforced by the world building of banbuduo and heaven.
In this strange, new world she’s discovered of ancient beings and underworldly denizens, her aunts form Julienne’s anchor and the sole surety for safety. The interplay between Julienne and her aunts is fabulous. Julienne is understandably awed by these divine beings who have claimed kinship with her, yet they very much aim to be traditional aunties, which they don’t always succeed at, being not very traditional at all. Julienne is seemingly taking a leaf out of the Book of Unconventionality, especially once she meets and falls in love with Olivia, who is far more than the beautiful woman she seems. Theirs is a relationship against all odds and I loved how Sriduangkaew shaped it. She also slips in some subtle hints to Julienne’s mental health issues, to the anxiety and mood disorder she lives with and how these affect her reactions and decisions in the narrative. I appreciated these, especially as Julienne’s bravest decisions aren’t made to prove herself worthy or her aunts, or to prove her love for Olivia, but to prove her worth to herself.
I’ve actually read Scale-Bright twice. Once somewhat accidentally – I just went for a quick peek at the first few pages and then didn’t put it down until I was finished – and once after reading all the connected short stories about Houyi, Chang’e, and Julienne. How did having read the previous stories affect my reading experience the second time? In terms of sheer enjoyment not much, though having some of the backstory did enrich some of the details Sriduangkaew drops into her narrative and made me recognise some of the visual clues I missed the first time. Having read the other stories – and indeed all of Sriduangkaew’s short fiction I could freely get my heads on – did elucidate some recurrent themes in her work that also appear in Scale-Bright, such as f/f relationships, finding one’s place in the world, and breaking away from societal expectations and gender roles. Overall I would say that Scale-Bright stands alone beautifully, but is enriched by knowledge of the other stories.
Scale-Bright is a fabulous story and it’s only confirmed Benjanun Sriduangkaew as an author to watch. I’d love to read more stories about Julienne, Olivia and the aunts, whether in short form or in long form. In fact, I’m generally excited to read more from Sriduangkaew in the future, be it this kind of fantastical retelling, stories set in her The Hegemony SF universe, or wherever she’ll explore next. If you’ve not read any of her work before then I highly recommend Scale-Bright as an entry point. But whatever you do, remember the name Benjanun Sriduangkaew; you’ll be sure to find it often on future award shortlists.
This book was provided for review by the author.