It’s a little surprising to me that Western audiences don’t read more Asian fantasy. We consume fantastic action-adventure cinema out of Hong Kong and loads of fantastic manga and anime out of Japan, but mainstream genre readers remain staunchly loyal to alternate Europes, or, more rarely, alternate Asias penned by Westerners (if this Goodreads list of “Popular Asian Fantasy” is to be credited). Yet the Chinese SpecFic market alone is enormous, a universe of new worlds that dwarfs the Western one; untapped, we’re told, because of the language barrier. A poor excuse, if you ask me. A million Japanese-speaking American teenagers will tell you language isn’t an object when you really want something. With the barest amount of effort, Asian fantasy could be on every bookshelf in the world.
In fact, there is a lot of Asian fantasy being written in English right now, and it is excellent (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/78392.Award_nominated_Asian_SFF_writers). This month’s offerings have been especially rich, so we really have no excuse not to be reading it.
Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears” (Tor.com August 27th 2014) is the contemporary story of a woman, Makino, who is wooed by a kappa (a sort of water spirit) as her elderly husband lies dying. The creature skirts the line between lover and predator, as so many romantic heroes seem to, leaving Makino wondering if she is falling in love or being devoured – and if there is a difference.
There are two love stories to consider in Yap’s tale: the story of Makino and Tetsuya, her husband, and the story of Makino and Kawataro, the kappa who loves her. Makino and Tetsuya’s story is sweet and genuine. Tetsuya, a country doctor, is in shy thrall to his wife, and Makino loves the man for gifting her that power over him. Makino is desperate not to lose her husband after a long life together and as his death becomes more inevitable, she becomes less sure of herself. By the time Kawataro appears in the bathhouse, Makino is already unravelling at the thought of losing her husband. Without her husband’s eyes to see herself, she feels old and ugly. In the kappa’s devotion, she sees what she needs from her husband. Kawataro is “Hesitant and wondering and clearly thinking of her.” She begins to waver when the kappa suggests he could love her like her husband does.
Kawataro’s devotion to Makino might be considered romantic. He does not do anything that Makino does not want him to. He begs and soothes her, offering reasons why he loves her and asking only for tiny concessions in return. To stroke her hair or rub her back.
Yet their relationship has an undertone of skilled emotional manipulation. Kawataro has come while Makino is extremely vulnerable, in a vulnerable space. He makes himself as physically harmless as he can be yet plays on her guilt, obligation, and desperation to get what he wants. Her capitulation to his desires feels organic, as if she is truly in love with him – and perhaps she is, but love bears a striking similarity to a kappa attack. Makino was told not to let a kappa touch her, or else it would eat up everything inside of her. That first touch she receives as a child opens the door for Kawataro to wedge himself into her heart. Though her final capitulation saves her husband, it also empties her completely. We’re left with the sense that this was what Makino was warned against all along, and it’s an old story. If you let a person touch you, they’ll make off with your heart and it might not be pleasant.
Yukimi Ogawa’s “Not Her Garden” (Lackington’s #3) is another Japanese love story, this time set in an unspecified historical period. Hime’s affair with her father’s gardener, Sakichi, is another cautionary tale about falling in love and how it might be wiser not to, assuming we could choose about these things.
A merchant’s daughter who styles herself a princess, Hime lives a vacuous life of pleasure and privilege, mostly by taking lovers. In Sakichi, the young gardener, she thinks she has just a new toy, but by tampering just slightly with the social order of Hime’s life, Sakichi allows her to see life from a different perspective. He will not take her money, suggests that she wear his shoes, and shows her the mysteries of the garden she has always taken for granted, including a lantern through which another, different garden can be seen. Hime is barely amused by these oddities, but they are enough to make Sakichi her new favourite. When their affair puts him in danger of beatings or worse, Hime sends him away on an indefinite errand to keep him safe.
The effects of Sakichi’s shift in perspective linger. Having once crossed lines of propriety and class, Hime seems emboldened to cross them again when her father begins going bankrupt. The story narrows from a more omniscient point of view to a snugger space in Hime’s head as her awareness grows along with her sense of loss. Aware, now, that nothing around her is hers, she longs for anything that will give her a place in the world which is hers alone – a place she feels she had with Sakichi.
In a way, this is the story of a princess trapped in a castle, waiting for the prince to spring her. Everything offered to Hime is ephemeral, pretty, but without any solid use that would give her power or freedom. Now aware of the autonomy of those around her, she can see how little she has herself. Rather than struggle to buck that fate, Hime chooses to wrap herself in it, fatalistically Hime to the end. Her shift in perspective has only served to embitter her. She is the picture trapped in the lantern’s eye, rather than the other world visible through it.
“No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #155) is much lighter fare, a spark of colourful adventure rather than melancholy. Ao is a Tangren artist, the maker of blown-sugar candy, who also has the magical ability to slip in and out of the candy creatures he creates – a skill which places him in the employ of a powerful Magistrate, Gongsun. When Gongsun is alerted to a looming attempt on his life, he calls upon Ao to prevent the assassination and root out the conspirators.
Ao’s tangren magic is what gives this piece its spark. In inhabiting his candy animals, Ao must negotiate the Zodiac spirits they represent, each with its own priorities. Each gift from Tiger or Snake is offered in exchange for another boon, and so it goes, with Ao juggling favours and debts as he tries to puzzle his way through an assassination attempt.
Though the scenario is action-packed, the emphasis on negotiation and problem-solving makes this a clever, gleeful piece rather than a violent, blunt one. Ao’s magic is based in finesse rather than power, and he is a simple rather than an ambitious man. The strength of the favours he extracts from the zodiac spirits is as much dependant on his craft – his artistry – as his problem-solving skills. As the assassination plot unfolds, Ao extends and pushes the limits of his magic, weaving a complex web of favours without ever becoming physically imperilled, a victory for brains over brawn. After facing intellectual and artistic challenges, he ultimately is faced with a moral one: kill the bad guy or keep his bargains? Pi’s story is tidy, refreshing, and smart; a pearl of uncomplicated fun.