Reimagining Folklore: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is an anthology of stories influenced by South and East Asian folklore and mythology.  Its editors, Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, are both board members of We Need Diverse Books, an organisation dedicated to advocating for diversity in literature. (Oh is the organisation’s current president.) The list of contributors includes names like Aliette de Bodard, Alyssa Wong, Roshani Chokshi, and Renée Ahdieh, all people with strong track records in the fiction field.

Before I discuss the anthology itself, let’s acknowledge two things. This is an anthology based around South and East Asian folklore mostly written by Americans of South and East Asian heritage. I’m a white Irish person who’s widely read, but I have no personal connection to Asian mythology: I expect this anthology will speak more strongly at an emotional level to people who have a more personal connection to the myths that form the basis for some of these stories.

So, the anthology. Anthologies and I have a complicated relationship. I don’t read a lot of short fiction. I know what I like: the prose and feeling of Aliette de Bodard, Max Gladstone, Elizabeth Bear; the glittering pointedness of Alyssa Wong on her best day. I like a pointed theme in short fiction, an emotion that lingers long after you’re done. And when it comes to anthologies, I like to feel that the arrangement of the stories have an emotional shape, that stories are paired or contrasted for effect.

I don’t really feel that with A Thousand Beginnings and Endings. And I’m not entirely sure whether or not this anthology is aimed at the adult SFF or the young adult market, either: the cover copy offers little indication and the content could go either way.

The table of contents is a pretty mixed bag. There are some truly excellent stories in its list of fifteen, but not many, and a handful don’t quite rise above mediocre.

Aliette de Bodard’s “The Counting of Vermillion Beads,” a brief and elegant story about two sisters in the service of an emperor, is one of the outstanding ones. One sister is driven to try to escape, and her attempts see her transform into a bird, a tree, dust on the wind: the other sister follows the rules and remains. The emotional heart of the story is a tension between loyalty and the constraint of conformity: between different kinds of duty and self-determination (which are not necessarily opposed). De Bodard brings her characters to life, and a vein of kindness underlies this story. It ends in a fashion that brings me satisfaction.

Alyssa Wong’s “Olivia’s Table” is another of the standout stories. A young woman in America, the titular Olivia, travels to a small town renowned for its ghosts, in order to cook for the annual Ghost Festival. She’s following in her late mother’s footsteps. The food she cooks allows the ghosts to move on to whatever awaits them. “Olivia’s Table” is a story saturated with an atmosphere of grief and missed opportunities, of loss and of hope. Wong’s prose is crisp, and the sentiments of this story are full and rich. (This is also the only story in this anthology that so much as flirts with the potential for queer characters, as far as I can tell.)

A number of other stories are entertaining, including Elsie Chapman’s “Bullet, Butterfly,” a story about lovers whose duties pull them apart and which ends in tragedy; and Shveta Thakrar’s “Daughter of the Sun,” about a young woman who falls in love and needs to make a bargain with divine entities in order to keep spending time with her lover. But many have the unsettling feeling of a narrative that’s repeating a familiar parable, rather than stretching the writer’s skills and doing something novel with a folkloric retelling. Not that there’s anything wrong with parable and folklore-style, but if this style repeats too often within a single anthology, things start to feel a little tedious.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is an anthology I wanted to like more than I did. It’s a perfectly acceptable collection and has some good work in it. But it contains more mediocre stories than excellent ones.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is available from Greenwillow Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It’s a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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