DAW, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0618-9
The Dragon and the Stars sells itself as an anthology of “original short stories melding the rich cultural heritage of China with the imaginative realms of science and fantasy”. The editors Derwin Mak and Eric Choi explain in the afterword that the anthology wants to feature Chinese characters in a non-stereotypical light. While all this sounds good to me, I can only look at the cover art and wonder why a Western dragon is on it. The stories inside are just as confused about the purpose of the anthology.
I do think that the need for this anthology is a bit of a sad statement of things, as the genre is still considerably a playground for white characters, but at the same time, I do like the idea of such an anthology if it is done right. This anthology actually drags out Tess Gerritsen for an introduction. Since she’s not an author in the genre, so her presence here as the VIP only underlines the lack of a Chinese author in the genre worthy of introducing anything.
Tony Pi sets off on a right note with The Character of the Hound, a fantasy envisioning of the Song army’s war with the encroaching Jin army. The Song army use spirits, our our engineer hero Wu Fan discovers, and right now, there is a traitor within the army. Wu Fan is selected to root out this traitor, by letting his body be possessed by the spirit of the hound. While loyalty to one’s people is one thing, what would happen if he lets a spirit take over his body? This is a fun read, with a great concept, good pacing, and all. It’s short, but it reads like a great and complete story.
Charles Tan’s The Fortunes of Mrs. Yu revolves around a privileged upper-class Chinese lady with a perplexing dilemma: every fortune cookie she breaks open reveals a blank strip of paper. Mrs Yu scoffs at the very idea of fortune cookies at first, but the poor dear can’t help but to wonder whether these blank strips are a sign of some ill tidings to come. There isn’t anything dramatic here, but it’s a short and simple story with a quaint take home message. I have to hand it to the author: he captures the character of a snooty, self-absorbed tai-tai perfectly. Mrs Yu seem like a caricature here, but she isn’t. I know women like her in real life, trust me on this.
William F Wu’s Goin’ Down to Anglotown is what happens when you decide to switch races of stereotypical characters in urban or street fiction. Make the Chinese the white guys, the white guys the unhappy people in the ghetto, and have these Chinese guys be so dumb that they make Jersey Shore hooligans look like trained puppies. Thanks for playing, but I’ll pass on this one.
Derwin Mak, who probably knows the vision for this anthology better than many other contributors as he co-edited this anthology as well as played a big role in its conception (dude, what’s with the cover art?), offers The Polar Bear Carries the Mail, which is… well, it’s an interesting story, but the pacing is such as the story just drags on and on after a while. This story is about some Chinese aerospace engineers from a company in China trying to get a spaceport and processing plant up and running in Churchill, Manitoba. Alas, violent white environmentalists, many of whom don’t even care about the town until they have an excuse to picket and turn violent, want to spoil the party. Can the Chinese and the Aboriginals band together in a show of minority righteousness and make these white fools see the error of their ways? And why do we have to be so unnecessarily preachy here? The preachy overtones actually bring down the story, as the author just switches the race of the “good people” in a stereotypical portrayal of right versus wrong. As I’ve said, this could have been an interesting read, but the execution is off.
Emery Huang’s Lips of Ash is like a very special Chinese episode of Tales from the Crypt. It’s a nice story, with an appropriately chilling ending, but the pacing is way, way off. The author spends so long showing how the make-up artist Zhou Liang develop lipstick from the ashes of a fox spirit and the results of its use, but not enough on the aftermath. As a result, when the ending comes, it comes out of nowhere when it should have been an organic transition from the events taking place in the last few pages.
In Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo’s The Man on the Moon, the man of the moon (heh) comes to Earth and set up an audition for some woman that he would matchmake to himself, so that she would live until the end of the world, when he comes to claim her. This story is one of the more arty-farty ones, with the author going all “Ooh, watch my pretty words come together like a literary masterpiece – it’s arty because you can read the story three times and still have no idea what I’m really trying to say!” on the myth of Yue Lao. I like the original myth better, by the way, because someone gets stabbed there, at least.
Emily Mah’s Across the Sea deals with our archaeologist heroine Kate Hu having to deal with all kinds of issues stemming from having to work with a guy that made his name from her aunt’s opaque babbling while humiliating the poor woman in the result. I may like this story better if the heroine isn’t such an emotional mess incapable of doing anything right. She just whines, complains, and cries.
Eugie Foster’s Mortal Clay, Stone Heart is about a grand love between an exiled prince and a sculptor. Except, the grand love is more like a superficial attraction between two people that barely know each other, and the heroine is a petulant whiny dingbat with plenty of contemporary “seventeen-year old brat” attitude for a story supposedly set in the early days of Qin Shi Huangdi’s reign.
Melissa Yuan-Innes presents Dancers with Red Shoes, in which our heroine, who is training to be a wizard, stumbles upon the dancing feet (clad in red shoes) of that poor girl in that fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. This one has some interesting developments, but not enough to make it a memorable one. This is also one of the handful of stories that are in this anthology just because the main character is Chinese. There is no “Chinese heritage” stuff in sight. When these stories are placed beside the more preachy ones and the ones that make use of Chinese mythology, it seems like the people behind this anthology aren’t really sure what it is supposed to be.
Anyway, moving on, we have Shelly Li’s Intelligent Truth, which presents a staple plot of sci-fi stories wanting to preach about the awesomeness of humanity: our heroine finally discovers an android that may be more human than she thinks. Unfortunately, the heroine is whiny and stupid from the get go – at one point, her boyfriend lectures her on things that she, a PhD holder, should already know – and it is her imbecile nature that causes the happy denouement in this story. When the whole story can be boiled down to one short sentence – “Everything is the heroine’s fault, and she is a colossal imbecile” – then I’d say the story has a big problem.
Gabriela Lee’s Bargains is about a writer who pays a heavy price for success, only to wonder in the end whether it is worth it. I’ve read many cautionary tales of this nature, so this one isn’t anything noteworthy. Oh, and it’s here because the heroine just happens to be Chinese.
EL Chen’s Threes is a story best described as “it’s like those doomed love stories featuring a selkie, only we also put in an ark and a big flood, so that it’s an artistic take of a story done to death already”. I’m not impressed.
I have no idea what is so “fantasy” about Eric Choi’s The Son of Heaven, unless I count the creative liberties the author has taken with the life story of Tsien Hsue-shen, the father of China’s space program. This story portrays Tsien in a manner that, for all the author’s claims about breaking down stereotypes, is frightfully similar to the whole “Asian guys are frightfully intelligent when it comes to numbers, and so socially awkward” stereotype that Chinese people are bogged down by. Oh, and the author preaches heavily about how Canada is superior to the USA because the USA was such bastards back in those days when everyone assumed that everyone else that has a hint of foreign blood is a communist that must be treated with extreme prejudice. Well, Canada did take in all those Hong Kong folks that fled that country when China claimed back the island, after all, so Canada must be awesome. Or something like that.
Susan Ee’s Shadow City is awesome. It’s the tale of a fellow who has to confront his guilt in a story set in a dystopian place comparable to the Hells as portrayed in Chinese mythology. It’s elegantly written, beautifully understated yet moving, and it’s just right from start to finish. I love this one – it’s my favorite of the whole bunch.
Okay, by this point, I’m wondering when the “dragon” in the title is going to show up. Well, here it is, in Brenda W Clough’s The Water Weapon. In a steampunk version of 1851 London, our heroine Grace Stulting is recruited by the Scotland Yard for an interesting case. Due to her familiarity with the Chinese language, she is considered the best candidate to mingle with the people behind the newest attraction in the Crystal Palace: a really big life-like animated model of a Chinese dragon that has everyone going “Ooh!” There are rumors that unsavory magic is happening in that place, but the owner of the dragon – a Chinese princess – and her wizard seem like they have nothing to hide, hmm. I love this story too. It’s short, but it has a marvelously simple yet intriguing premise that works. The main character is interesting too, and when the story ends, I find myself wishing that it could have gone on a little longer.
Urania Fung has an American expatriate vexed by weird happenings revolving around strange food in The Right to Eat Decent Food. It has a nice build-up, but the pay-off is pure “What? Is that it? What?” territory. This one feels like only half a story, one that is rushed to a conclusion that doesn’t shed any insight on what had happened up to that point.
Wen Y Phua’s Papa and Mama is about reincarnation as seen from the eyes of a very young girl. This one already has a sappy premise, and things can only go downhill when the author clumsily tries to manipulate my emotions in a very blatant and hamfisted manner. A little more subtlety may have made things better.
Ken Liu’s Běidŏu tells the story of a soldier, Tan Yuansi, who manages to come up with a way to defeat Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea – China was allied with Korea back then – using lessons learned from a calligraphy session with the Wanli Emperor. This one isn’t bad at all, but I’m conflicted about the take home message. I have no issues with the message itself, but the author offers me a choice of picking a side, only to take away that option by inserting his idea of a definitive side immediately after. I feel that letting the story end by letting me decide which side to pick would have strengthened the impact of this story, but at the same time, I also feel that most people would choose the other side, one that the author doesn’t agree with, and that would have caused readers to miss the point of the story altogether. I don’t know. Still, it’s a pretty decent story to end the anthology.
On the whole, The Dragon and the Stars is a very uneven anthology, with a confused sense of purpose. Some stories seem to be thrown in here because the author happens to be Chinese or part-Chinese, even if the stories themselves are “white people” stories with Chinese main characters. And then there’s the cover art, as well as an introduction by an author that write crime thrillers rather than fantasy or sci-fi. Is this anthology a “Chinese authors” thing, or is it a “stories with elements from Chinese mythology” thing? Still, whatever this anthology aims to be, the abundance of very average stories ultimately set it back from whatever it is that it is trying to achieve.