Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad Malaysian and Malaysian-diaspora fantasy shorts collection brings extremely intimate and personal concepts into the sphere of fantasy fiction–like unexpected difficulty in schoolwork or performing arts after being at the top of your class, or blooming into your suppressed bisexuality. Far from being the fantasy of broad, sweeping, epic stories about clashes between dynasties or magical orders, this is the fantasy about household magic, about supernatural creatures that have the same feelings and hopes and family structures we mortals do, and about one-on-one friendships and relationships. They even enjoy the simple, hedonic pleasure of food.
Other key themes of the book’s fifteen stories include Malaysia’s multiculturalism, with Chinese traditions coexisting alongside Christianity and Islam plus all the legends and fantasy creatures that are uniquely Malaysian, and women, both mortal and supernatural, interacting with their female family members, especially across the generations. I was fascinated, incidentally, by the variety of undead within Malaysian mythology, with the type of ghost varying by gender, manner of death, etc.
Some of my favorite moments:
“The House of Aunts”, which is available to read for free here, is a sweet YA paranormal romance starring a teenage vampire who lives with all the protective, overbearing yet nurturing female relatives of her family who share her condition while posing as a living student at school. At one point in the story she won’t let the Muslim boy she has a crush on share her lunch, telling him that it’s pork. (Readers: it’s not pork.) This is just so goddamn cute and grisly at the same time that it made me smile, and also is a model way to recognize ethnoreligious diversity in a spec fic setting.
“The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life”, also available free, is about a young woman who suddenly acquires a supernatural shadow: her own self, as a teenager. Through a series of amusing or poignant moments she interacts with her old self as she travels to Japan to teach English and learn Japanese, until finally the two selves merge again and she becomes the whole person she was meant to be from the beginning. This is one of the anthology’s two stories about women who like women. The other one is:
“The Mystery of the Suet Swain”, in which a lesbian fights a demon Nice Guy. I mean all of that literally, including the demon part! The story leaves it unclear whether or not she and the “I said no to the last eleven guys who asked me out” best friend will date after the main character rescues her, but I think it’s a good story either way (and I say yes, sure, they date.)
This one is a darker moment, but there’s a part in the self-harm/self-destructive metaphor story “The Fish Bowl” where the MC is struggling with performing music she hasn’t practiced, so as a price for the magic to make her get through the piece, the titular magic fish drains blood from her in a way that shows up as four angry red streaks down her arm representing the four strings running down our fingerboards. As a violinist, this is a sharp and accurate piece of imagery. In fact when I read that line I immediately fired off a tweet to the author saying “you get us.”
There are so many other creative ideas in this book that I could go on and on — including the old favorite fantasy setting of an English boarding school but still populated by Malaysian diaspora characters, and another one where a troupe of Chinese dancers in England are secretly ghostbusters also, but hopefully by now I’ve convinced whoever’s reading this to give the book a whirl. Every once in a while I add a line to my reviews to the effect of “if you like my books, try–” and this is one of them.
I advise buying the eBook so that you can stay abreast of trigger warnings without my help, since the author has commendably included a lot of warnings and clicky-things that go to her notes and “skip this story if you don’t want to read about X” and other helpful tidbits. Obviously stay out of “House of Aunts” if cannibalism is a major squick, although I found myself craving gribenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat) after I read it because I am, truly, a trash can. 😛