"What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”
It’s going to be difficult to contain my excitement over this novella and in any case, why should I? It has everything going for it—prose that beautifully encapsulates both the fantastic and the mundane; deft storytelling that folds and combines three different stories into one; and a strong focus on relationships between lovers, friends and families. In addition: ladies kissing and fighting and finding themselves.
Julienne is just a regular human living in Hong Kong who recently found out that her aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They taught her that Hong Kong is not the city she thought it was—and now that she has a close association with two goddesses, it’s less than safe.
One day, Julienne comes across a bleeding woman that no one but her can see and, against all sense of self-preservation, she takes her in. In doing so, Julienne becomes entangled in an ages-long feud.
Like I said, Scale-Bright is three stories folded into one. One of the running threads is the continuing love story between goddesses Hau Ngai and Seung Ngo, their new commitment to their niece Julienne and their on-going struggle with dealing with the consequences to their actions. Although Scale-Bright stands alone really well, readers who have also read Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short stories “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” and "Chang'e Dashes from the Moon" will probably have a deeper, better insight into this particular storyline (both shorts are included with the ebook version of Scale-Bright, by the way). The second storyline is another Chinese retelling, that of the Legend of the White Snake (apologies for the Westernized title), also strongly featuring women of power and women who love each other.
These storylines are not as separate as I am making them sound—in fact, one of the most distinctive things about Scale-Bright is how it fuses these independent stories as though they are feeding into and from each other. The connective tissue between them comes through Julienne’s viewpoint. Her own journey is the most immediate and perhaps the most intimate of the storylines. The feeling one gets from the stories about Hau Ngai and Seung Nog and the two serpents is one that stems from the fantastic, the mythological, the eternal. Even though the characters are almost too humane in their dealings with each other (love and jealousy makes everything so grounded), there is this strong sense of power that makes all of it almost too operatic and grandiose. I say that in the best possible way: These stories are awesome and important in their reshaping the imagining of the world from a very feminine point of view.
With that said, from a personal perspective, it’s Julienne’s journey that truly spoke to me: It’s so human, so small in comparison—the sense of powerlessness one can feel, upped by a million degrees, at the fact that this puny now human has dealings with people that inhabit history and change the world.
I love how Julienne’s story is defined as a journey of identity and self-worth and by the restoration of not only her sense of self but also of the kind of power she is able to wield. Best of all, it’s the connection of all that with love, friendship and family. The framing of the story is equally great: It opens when someone asks her a question about her deepest desires, at which point she has no answer. She doesn’t know. It ends with a newly found deeper understanding of not only what she desires but also how she can go about making sure it not only becomes real but also enduring.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew came into the SF/F sphere only very recently but the quality of her short stories have already earned her a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year. I can only imagine how far high she will inevitably fly within the SF/F field in the coming years and I will most definitely be there to follow it.
In Book Smugglerish: a holy-crap-this-is-incredible 9 out of 10 and one of the best things I’ve read this year.