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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

A Delicious Layer Cake of Tragedy and Romance: Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

I figured we should finish our big gay book-club at the same place we started: the “resurrection and revenge” (among other things!) of the infamous Wei Wuxian, in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师 / Mó Dào Zǔ Shī). Whether we’re talking fans whose fingernails got thoroughly gnawed awaiting the translations, or entirely new readers just discovering Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, this is probably the series they recognize at a glance. And honestly, if you’re a gay person online, the iconic image of two bunnies—one white and one black, sporting respective white and red ribbons—has probably crossed your timeline at some point.

As for me, separating my initial read of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation from my fond memories of its live-action adaptation The Untamed is, maybe, an impossible proposition. Despite differences in settings, timelines, and narrative elements, the two texts share the same beating heart through the characters and their relationships. Plus, inside the fandom, word-of-mouth details from the novels constantly circulate as background for the show, like, “okay, so, the dismembered corpse parts are significant because—” or “in the books, they’re about to awkwardly fuck in some bushes.”

Same as the other installments, though, I’m aiming to give these novels their due consideration as novels first and foremost.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

The Joyful Liberation of True Love: Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

I mentioned in the kick-off for our Mo Xiang Tong Xiu book club that I’d already downloaded a fan translation of Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福 / Tiān Guān Cì Fú) before these editions were announced… which was 100% because I’d watched the single season of the animated series multiple times. I saw it first while house-sitting for friends, following an afternoon spent lounging outdoors petting their friendliest cat. I’d been craving sweetness, something fun and light—then I fell head-over-heels for the dynamic between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. (Hard not to, frankly, with the sheer force of sensuality the animators imbued their version of the Crimson Rain Sought Flower with. Kudos to them on their labors, ahem.)

The donghua offers precisely zero contextualizing details, though, in the usual manner of adaptations that presume familiarity with the source material. Plus, I’d perceived many a fandom rumbling about how devastating (in the best way) the series gets as it goes on: multiple tiers of hidden identities, past slights and present betrayals, gender shenanigans, catastrophes and curses! I was thirsty for the actual books with all their promised glory… but due to the aforementioned PhD exams, never got around to opening that epub. So now, I’m reading the official translations instead.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Screwball Comedy in Translation: The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

For months, one of my pals has been muttering “god I can’t wait until you meet Shen Yuan” during all our book conversations. Before the translations were announced, even! I think it haunted him, knowing what awaited me but being unable to bring the textual encounter to fruition. The enthusiasm was contagious, though, and once I’d snagged my copies no force on earth could stop me from reading Scum Villain (人渣反派自救系统 / Rén Zhā Fǎnpài Zìjiù Xìtǒng) first.

The general premise goes something like, “the loudest anti-fan of trashy stallion webnovel dies in the midst of an impassioned critique rant and transmigrates as the cruel, untouchable teacher of the handsome protagonist—a protagonist whomst he, like, adores? Except his efforts to craft a ‘magnificent, high-quality, first-rate classic’ from the OG novel (and coincidentally, save his own skin)… ahem, change the story more than he anticipated.” By which I mean: things get gay.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Queer Reading Pleasure: Three Novels by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

One afternoon in August, I was fiddling with a course syllabus when an avalanche of messages and twitter alerts pinged through my phone. Online fandom pals, publishing newsfeeds, and real-life friends were doing a big “!!!” all over the place. The top independently owned manga and light novel publisher in North America, Seven Seas Entertainment, had announced their acquisition of Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s wildly popular novel series The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System (2014), Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (2015), and Heaven Official’s Blessing (2017)—and thanks to their adoption of prior fan translations, the books would begin coming out as soon as winter.

Originally appearing as serial fiction through JJWXC, all three webnovels are fantastical stories set within wuxia or xianxia worlds—and as danmei books they’re, obviously, super gay. Since those initial publications each has also been adapted as either an animated or live-action series, most notably The Untamed (陈情令), which landed with a splash among Anglophone audiences in 2019. So, considering MXTX’s already boisterously-engaged transnational fandom, the simultaneous releases of these first volumes in English on December 14th made for a day triple-circled in hearts on tons of queer readers’ calendars.

Therefore I ask, what better books could there be for a Queering SFF reading series to kick off the new year than these?

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Superstition Was a Compass: Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

To celebrate an upcoming wedding between two of their number, a group of friends who grew up together in Malaysia reunite to spend one night in a crumbling Heian-era manor house. Ghostly thrill-seeking used to be their lifeblood, so an ancient mansion built on the bones of an entombed bride-to-be and more than two hundred companion girls holds a certain appeal. After all, what better place could there be to prepare for a marriage and blow an obscene amount of their near-billionaire friend Phillip’s inheritance?

However, the drawing together opens old wounds—jealousies, romantic failures, abandonments, privileges and cruelties—especially for Cat, who’s fresh off a six month long recovery from a serious depressive episode. But histories far nastier than their interpersonal squabbles lurk within the creaking foundations of the manor house… and the ghost of a centuries-dead bride has designs on the guests interrupting her estate’s moldering quiet. She’s bound to be getting a little lonely, buried down in the dirt.

[A review essay, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

Slasher 101: My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Jade Daniels—or, JD—is a horror-obsessed loner staggering through the final months of her senior year of high school in rural Proofrock, Idaho. She writes extra-credit papers on “Slasher 101” for her history teacher to boost her grades, works as a custodian for the county after school, and avoids being home too often. Sometimes she camps out at the rundown remains of Camp Blood, site of a real-life slasher incident, waiting with baited breath—either to turn eighteen so she can skip town or for another cycle of killings to kick off.

So when a couple of young tourists go missing at the same time a conglomerate of wealthy families, the Founders, break ground across the town lake for their “Terra Nova” housing project, Jade can’t believe her luck. Signs are lining up, including the arrival of Letha Mondragon, whom Jade assumes must be the fresh final girl: she’s handsome, naïve, kind, blush-inducing. Unfortunately, the town’s gruesome histories are influencing the direction of this burgeoning horror flick, and getting stuck in the cycle isn’t as much of a relief as it was in Jade’s fantasies.

[A review.]

Neither One Thing Nor the Other: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

As a daughter born in an era of lethal drought and impoverishment, Zhu knows her fate before a fortune-teller confirms it: nothing. In contrast, her brother Zhu Chongba is pronounced to be destined for real greatness—but when bandits murder their father in front of them, Zhu Chongba dies as well. Fueled by a burning desire to survive at all costs, Zhu adopts her brother’s name and grasps for his fate. She becomes a young man, commits to monastic life, and nurtures that hunger to be someone, until a grim encounter with the Yuan’s eunuch general Ouyang sets her on the path toward empire.

Drawing inspiration from the historical Red Turban Rebellion, She Who Became the Sun (first of the Radiant Emperor duology) reimagines of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang—from peasant to founder of the Ming Dynasty—and the concurrent collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty… if Zhu had been the unnamed daughter instead.

[Read more]

Series: Queering SFF

Body, Books, Beauty: The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in the T City undersea dome, with a curated list of clients and an intimate workspace she calls Salon Canary. However, after a journalist client nudges her to do a public interview, Momo’s estranged mother contacts her again. She asks to meet for the first time in two decades—the first time since Momo left for boarding school. The possibility of reuniting with her mother provokes a cascade of complicated memories and feelings, which Momo frames through questions about the nature of her attachments, her memories, and even the flesh of her own body.

First published in Taiwan in 1995, The Membranes is a classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese—one that is, with this agile translation from Ari Larissa Heinrich, accessible to an English-language readership for the first time. As part of Columbia University Press’s “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan” series, this edition of the novel also comes with an excellent afterword titled “Promiscuous Literacy: Taipei Punk and the Queer Future of The Membranes.” The short essay conversationally explores the time and place that Chi Ta-Wei was writing from, an explosion of artistic and cultural development in mid-90’s Taiwan after the end of martial law—and reflects on what it’s like to read the book now, twenty-five years later.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Hex-Related Data: Future Feeling by Joss Lake

Penfield R. Henderson, dog-walker with a trust fund and closeted-celebrity-fucker, has problems: a bitter parasocial obsession with transmasculine influencer Aiden Chase, a cramped dirty apartment in Bushwick he shares with the Witch and the Stoner-Hacker, and a deep-seated sense of inadequacy about his own awkward transition to manhood. After a bad run-in with Aiden, Penfield decides to cast a hex on him to send him back to the Shadowlands (the desaturated and miserable portion of transition where it all sucks endlessly) as punishment for his perceived perfection. But, unfortunately, the hex hits an unintended target: Blithe, a total stranger. The Rhiz, a benevolent web of queer elders, pairs Aiden and Penfield to caretake Blithe and pass on their trans wisdom to him in his time of need.

Future Feeling is a rambunctious novel full of hilarious, sly language games—but also advanced technology close enough to our own to feel relatable, dream-like flights of fanciful imagination, and an overarching concern with how trans and queer folks might form communities with one another. It’s very present in the current moment, despite (or because of!) its use of futurism. Lake has crafted a closely observed, referential, and occasionally self-critical portrait of the pettiness and loneliness and loveliness of Penfield’s internal life as he journeys toward acceptance.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

“What do you feel?” — Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

In Mister Impossible, the second book of Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy, Ronan Lynch hits the road with his mentor Bryde and the forger-dreamer Jordan Hennessy. They’re on a quest to restore the leyline energies that have been guttering, killing dreamers and putting their creations to sleep. But problems compound along the way: the Moderators aren’t giving up on their trail, Adam and Declan and Jordan are out of contact with their partners-siblings-dreamers, and all great power comes with consequences. Who’s to say that Ronan’s going in the right direction—and whether Bryde is someone he should be trusting after all?

Stiefvater has crafted an intricately plotted novel that engages with messy ethical conundrums, driven by a cast of fascinatingly amoral characters all aiming to do their version of the right thing at cross purposes. On a thematic level, Mister Impossible also carries a deep-running concern with the purpose of art and the responsibilities of creators to the world around them. Whether painted by Jordan Hennessy or pulled from the dreams of Ronan Lynch, whether cordoned off as a John Singer Sargent portrait in a museum or held in the palm as a slick, strange orb—art is a beautiful, dangerous, alive thing.

[A review, with spoilers.]

“Orienting Our Own Moral Compass!” — Defekt by Nino Cipri

Defekt is Nino Cipri’s second novella set in the world(s) of LitenVärld, a fictionalized IKEA, following Finna (2020) but perfectly readable as a stand-alone. While Jules does pop up in the background at the start of the book, our protagonist for this frightful multidimensional excursion is Derek: an employee whose loyalty to the LitenVärld family is unparalleled, whose living space is a shipping container at the backlot of the store and who’s never taken a sick day… until he starts coughing blood unexpectedly.

But the perfect employee shouldn’t need time off. Calling out sick leads Derek to be assigned to a special inventory team for a locked-in night of hunting defective products, like toy chests that have grown pincers and eyestalks, but that’s not even the strangest part. The honor of peak weirdness goes to the visiting inventory team, a set of four strangers who look and sound (almost) identical to him.

So, when it comes to facing down sentient furniture horrors, are five Dereks really better than one? Or are the furnishings come to life not the real problem?

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

Counterculture(s) Past: Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom

The first of two collections of Izumi Suzuki’s (1949-1986) work forthcoming from Verso Books, Terminal Boredom: Stories contains seven pieces appearing for the first time in English translation—in some cases more than forty years after their original release. However, from gender politics in a queer matriarchy to media oversaturation and disaffection, the themes of her fiction still thrum with a resistant, brightly grim tension. Passing decades certainly haven’t dulled the the razor’s cut of her punk sensibilities.

Instead of one translator handling the entire collection, the stories are split between six: Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton. Across their individual stylistic approaches to Suzuki’s prose, bedrock features come through: crispness edging toward a cruel gloss in the dialogue, emotional saturation (or desaturation) as both literal experience and speculative metaphor, references to American films and Jazz music. The future, or a dream of the future, always arrives alongside struggle for people whose lives don’t match up to the mainstream—who stand a step outside of comfort.

[A review.]

A Science Fictional Domestic Thriller: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

As her scientific career is climbing to fresh heights, Doctor Evelyn Caldwell finds out that her husband, Nathan, has been cheating on her—but not with a colleague. Instead, he’s hijacked her cloning research to create an ideal replacement wife from Evelyn’s own genetic material: Martine. She’s almost identical to Evelyn in appearance, but Nathan has altered her to be more subservient, family-oriented, and attentive to his needs. However, the real problems start when Martine calls Evelyn in a panic after killing Nathan in self-defense… and Evelyn decides to help with the cover-up.

The Echo Wife is a phenomenal, creepy, significant novel—but it’s a hard read, and wrestling with its implications is harder. The twisting, remorseless plot seamlessly combines domestic thriller with cutting-edge science fiction, dragging the reader along as the Caldwells’ secrets are unearthed one at a time. Sarah Gailey’s incisive prose lends to the suffocating atmosphere that pervades the book, maintaining a heightened state of discomfort that is magnified by thematic explorations of spousal abuse, cloning ethics, and straight-up murder.

[Onward; contains significant spoilers.]

A Harbor Full of Bones: The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller

Ronan Szepessy, a recently-sober gay photographer, promised himself he’d never come home to Hudson—no matter his father’s ailing health or his guilt over leaving the dying town behind. And he’s done well keeping that oath, until he wakes up on the train from New York City with no clear memories of boarding. When he arrives he realizes the city has changed: overrun with young, white, wealthy kids, antique stores and coffee bars blossoming in place of family businesses. Gentrification has forced locals from their homes and worsened fractures that have lingered under the surface for decades.

Hudson, though, has a long and gore-soaked history that throbs in the blood of its inhabitants: ghosts, nightmares, strange powers. The small gods that are the city do not take kindly to the incursion of outsiders, and neither do the real people losing their livelihoods. After Ronan reconnects with his childhood friends Dom and Attalah, now married, he and Attalah start a scheme to rescue their home—but the situation spirals out of control, and Ronan must come to terms with his own demons if he intends to stop the destruction he’s unwittingly set in motion.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

I Await the Devil’s Coming: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Curses are stories are histories, and Plain Bad Heroines is full to the brim with all three. In 1902 the Brookhants School for Girls witnessed the romance of two students, Flo and Clara, with each other and with Mary Maclane’s scandalous memoir—a romance ending with their gruesome demise in a swarm of yellowjackets. After three more untimely deaths the school closed for good, forgotten until the present, when young Merritt Emmons’s queer novel about Brookhants becomes a breakout bestseller. Hollywood comes calling, bringing along lesbian indie it-girl Harper Harper and former child star Audrey Wells to star in the adaptation. But naturally, when these three young women arrive at the old school grounds to begin filming, the situation goes frighteningly awry.

Plain Bad Heroines is Danforth’s first adult novel and second overall, following the much-beloved young adult book The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012). Illustrated by Sara Lautman with an echo of Edward Gorey, the book plays luxurious games with the reader, nesting stories within stories (within stories) as the hauntings unfold. Whether it’s the straightforward gothic of the 1902 plot(s) or the compulsive, prickly-sexy contemporary film production’s messy queer attractions, Danforth nails each beat. Plain Bad Heroines is scary, witty, and darkly taunting—without ever losing the core of heart inside the ghoulish cleverness of the prose.

[Read more]

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