content by

Wendy Chen

Transformation, Morality, and Demonic Power: A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee

Stories which dive into the morality of power as a double-edged sword have always fascinated me. When I find villains in speculative fiction intriguing, it’s often because something about their extreme actions is recognisably human. Along similar lines, I also love stories where protagonists grapple with moral ambiguity as a result of dangerous newfound powers, and must decide what they are willing to compromise and to stand for.

A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee is a captivating exploration of these ideas, centering on a young girl’s transformation as she journeys through a Japanese-inspired supernatural world and faces the collisions between demons and humanity.

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A Fairy Tale for the Jazz Age: Shattered Midnight by Dhonielle Clayton

Shattered Midnight by Dhonielle Clayton is the second of The Mirror books, a young adult historical fantasy series featuring a family curse across generations. The book evokes fairy tales and forbidden romance in the atmospheric world of 1920s New Orleans, exploring the hierarchies that the characters face in their daily lives, as well as the joys of love and music amidst this.

When we first meet the protagonist, Zora Broussard is a jazz-loving girl who’s been forced to leave her family, after she’d unintentionally harmed someone with her magic in New York. She’s now hiding from her past in New Orleans, hiding under a new name, and hiding her magic—or at least trying to. Yet when she is unable to restrain her powers, her aunt takes her to see a ‘conjure woman’ who offers her a magical bargain that is reminiscent of fairy tale tropes. Zora can rid herself of the magic in two months’ time—but the cost will be the source of its power inside her, her abilities for music.

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Destinies Entwined in Girls of Fate and Fury by Natasha Ngan

When I first read Girls of Paper and Fire in 2019, I was in awe of the intricately built fantasy world and the compelling narrative of two queer girls falling in love and fighting against patriarchal oppression. The final book in the trilogy, Girls of Fate and Fury, brings these characters’ journeys and the revolutionary conflict to a dramatic and emotional close. Lei discovers the insidious plans the Demon King has for her, while Wren is thrust into sudden leadership positions as part of the rebellion. The book further develops ideas of power and strength, explores the tragic choices which are inherent in war, and demonstrates how love enables resistance, no matter the circumstances.

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Finding Empowerment in Diaspora Identity: The Last Fallen Star and Lirael

Protagonists who are outsiders are common touchstones in Children’s and Young Adult literature. I’ve always been drawn to such characters, but especially towards those who feel excluded from their communities and grapple with how they see themselves in light of external expectations.  In such stories I can see my own formative experiences, being of Chinese heritage and growing up in Australia as part of the diaspora.

I discovered a particularly powerful example of this narrative when I read children’s fantasy novel The Last Fallen Star by Korean New Zealand author Graci Kim, and saw so much of my own life mirrored in it. The book also reminded me of another speculative novel, one which I’d read as a teenager—Lirael by Garth Nix. Reflecting on the similarities between that book and The Last Fallen Star made me realise that Lirael had resonated with me in a strikingly similar way at the time I’d read it, though I’d originally been unable to articulate precisely why it was so powerful.

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