the Little Red Reviewer

Scale-Bright, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Posted on: September 13, 2014

Scale-Bright - Benjanun SriduangkaewScale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

published August 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the author (thanks!)

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Niall Alexander’s recently reviewed Scale-Bright on Tor, and  he suggested reading the accompanying and related short stories first. Benjanun Sriduangkaew recommends reading Scale-Bright first.  I followed both of their advices.  I read the short stories first, but I’ll review the novella first. Check back next week for a review of the short stories that are published along side and birthed Scale-Bright, because they are glorious all on their own, in a completely different way. Let me give you a little teaser right off the bat: if you like Catherynne Valente, you’re gonna love Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

 

Those familiar with Chinese mythology will recognize characters and words, will smile out of the corner of their mouths because they know what’s coming. Woefully ignorant (yet less so, now) of Chinese mythology, all these characters and words were new to me. Wikipedia answered my most basic questions about Houyi and Chang’e, but the words I didn’t know, words like banbuduo, mowhab and daihap, had to be figured out contextually. Those were the words that tasted the best.  For those readers who would prefer some background before diving in, Sriduangkaew wrote a great guest post over at SFSignal that is a cheat-sheet of sorts.

 

The stories she was raised with are real if not always told correctly, and the movies and plays only told the tiniest part, and Julienne, a mortal woman in Hong Kong, has been invited into mythology. Orphaned and then found by her aunt Chang’e and Chang’e’s wife Houyi, Julienne knows no one would believe her if she said her aunts were Immortals.  It’s a tenuous yet amusing dynamic between the three women – Julienne is a little embarrassed about what she sees as her personal failings, and her aunties are fiercely proud and protective of her.  They give her the tiniest of sacred protections, and she unknowlingly helps them navigate the concept of “family”.  There is more than the barest undercurrent that this is the first time in Julienne’s life that her sexuality has not been questioned or judged, that she’s being completely and unconditionally accepted for who she is.

 

Julienne knows she is on the edge of mythology, that her aunties are the women to whom these stories actually happened to, that to them they are not stories but history, that Houyi is still paying for the crime of shooting down the suns, that Chang’e is making up for all the time she lost when she was imprisoned on the Moon. But  I’ll talk much more about those two ladies later, as Scale-Bright is Julienne’s story.

During a late evening out, Julienne helps a wounded demon. The demon, Olivia, feeds off Julienne’s lifesource, but does no lasting damage.  Olivia knows by involving Julienne she risks the wrath of Houyi, but she begs for a meeting, and a boon.   Thus begins a complex turn of events involving seduction, visits to interstitial realms and a half remembered opera, ancient bargains steeped in sadness and hatred, deals and promises exacted of demons and tricksters, a shifting pagoda,  and all the ancient rules and contracts that have balanced the heavens for generations untold. Sriduangkaew will draw you in, and like Julienne in the arms of Olivia, you’ll be seduced, you’ll be enthralled, and you’ll invite it to happen again, because it feels like magic grazing your skin.

 

Scale-Bright is a viscerally sensual coming of age story of falling in love with the wrong person, of being willing to wait an eternity, of falsely believing love comes with conditions. Hearts swell, and are confused as to why they don’t break, or do. Julienne is continually asked “what do you want?”, and she’s gambling that her family will accept her answer.

 

Striking a delicate balance between gorgeous worldbuilding and graceful and deep characterization, it’s hard to decide which to spend my words on, the characters or the world.  And oh wow did I love these characters.

 

There’s Julienne, with her quiet reserve, fighting anxiety and depression, desperate to finally be done with all this coming-of-age crap. There’s the hunter Houyi, statuesque and unapproachable, comfortable in her men’s clothing and confused as to why or how anyone could possibly confuse her for a man. There’s Chang’e, who is mostly off stage in this story, but pivotal to Julienne’s relationship with the supernatural. And then then there is Olivia,  a viper demon, who will do anything to reach the end of her story even though she knows her love will not be returned.  Olivia’s true self shines through when it’s her turn to take center stage, and the light she shines with is blinding. If this is the glory all demons hide within themselves, it’s no wonder the immortals have tarnished their stories so.  This may be Julienne’s story, but without Olivia, Julienne would have been the girl who stayed quiet, who never took a step forward, who never realized what she wanted.

 

The first half of Scale-Bright was amazing and alluring and dark and a little funny, and then the second half came along and completely knocked my socks off.  To tell you what happens would constitute a spoiler of the highest degree, but I can tell you there’s a bit of a Hero’s Journey happening here. Both Olivia and Julienne are willing to risk everything to get what they want, Olivia because mythology demands it of her, and Julienne because she finally has the self confidence that has been elusive all these years.  Also? The prose is spellbindingly and startlingly gorgeous. If I quoted my favorite passages, not only would I be quoting nearly the entire novella, but I’d be spoiling the best bits as well.
I think everyone is going to get something a little different out of Scale-Bright. For me, it was acceptance.

7 Responses to "Scale-Bright, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew"

It’s tasty good.

FWIW, I think reading the stories first is the way to go.

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i do too. but I’m happy the novella is first in the volume.

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[…] There’s Julienne, with her quiet reserve, fighting anxiety and depression, desperate to finally be done with all this coming-of-age crap. There’s the hunter Houyi, statuesque and unapproachable, comfortable in her men’s clothing and confused as to why or how anyone could possibly confuse her for a man. There’s Chang’e, who is mostly off stage in this story, but pivotal to Julienne’s relationship with the supernatural. And then then there is Olivia,  a viper demon, who will do anything to reach the end of her story even though she knows her love will not be returned. – Little Red Reviewer […]

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To me it sounds very confusing, so this probably isn’t a great choice for me.

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This sounds brilliant and immersive. I’ll add it to my (now never-ending) reading list.🙂

Excellent review.

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[…] 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 […]

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[…] I heard about: The Little Red Reviewer posted a memorable and enthusiastic review around the time of its […]

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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