January 31st, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for January 31, 2016 (with a focus on Penguin titles)

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for January 31, 2016 (with a focus on Penguin titles)

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

Every couple of months, I already remind the readers of AALF about the College Faculty Information Service over at Penguin Random House whenever I am reviewing associated titles. CFIS allows qualified instructors about five free exam copies per year FOR FREE. It is THE BEST exam copy service of the major publishing houses because it’s quick, it’s obviously affordable, and it thus provides instructors with opportunities to expand course offerings. For more information go here:


And if any of the titles below sound interesting to you, you could request them ALL since they are all from Penguin, and there are four titles (which would leave you still with one other to pick from).

Without further ado, here are the reviews.

In this post, reviews of Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn (Putnam Juvenile, 2015); Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown (Penguin Publishing Group, 2015); Marie Lu’s The Rose Society (Penguin Young Readers, 2015); and Fatima Bhutto’s Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin Press, 2015);

A Review Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn (Putnam Juvenile, 2015).

Well, I have always been a fan of the genre of the oriental tale. The overview at B&N provides us with the basic gist of Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn: “Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend. She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.” The novel is loosely inspired by One Thousand and One Nights (otherwise known as the Arabian Nights), which focused on Scheherazade and her bid to survive an otherwise dangerous ruler who had been spurned in love and thus had used his power to execute virgins. Using her ability to weave the magical spell of storytelling, Scheherazade is able to evade her execution by keeping the ruler on the edge of his seat and thus pushing him to allow her to live one more day if he wants to hear more of the story. Ahdieh’s retelling is far more interested in exploring a more traditional courtship plot, which ultimately becomes the novel’s strength and its weakness. On the one hand, fans of the paranormal romance/ young adult fiction will be intrigued by the novel’s exploration of the genre conceit through the guise of the oriental tale and the reconstruction of a known plot. On the other, the place of storytelling eventually takes a backseat to the central romance. The issue here is that Ahdieh lets the elements of the fable enabled by embedded narratives recede into the background, which is an unfortunate result. The early tales that are included are delightful and show much of Shazi’s ability to generate political traction through the force of metaphor and allegory. Otherwise, Ahdieh manages to turn the original on its head in her clever redeployment of the motives behind the Caliph’s desire to execute these virgins. Further still, Shazi is quite the spirited heroine, who will no doubt bring a smile to readers in her proto-feminist, Westernized construct. For those interested in forms of the neo-Oriental tale, otherwise known as contemporary variations of narratives that involve the Middle East (and sometimes the Far East) from a millennia ago, I highly suggest Ted Chiang’s wonderful novelette, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Oh, and if anyone manages to procure a cheap copy of the bound edition, send it to me! HAHA! No joke! =) For fans of this work, you’ll be pleased to note that Ahdieh’s follow-up is scheduled for 2016.

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A Review of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown (Penguin Publishing Group, 2015).

Well this novel was certainly one of the surprise reads for me this year. While Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad has been languishing on my shelf for too long (and still remains untouched), I finally got in gear to read her debut novel and US stateside emergence with The Sorcerer to the Crown. This novel is first of a trilogy, which is interesting given the fact that this work is definitely not marketed to the young adult crowd. To me, the differences of this work and young adult remain the age of the protagonist and therefore the kinds of issues and complexities that might come with an older and perhaps more wiser main character. The official Penguin Random website offers this synopsis: “The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large.” The woman “with immense power” is none other than a spirited character named Prunella Gentleman, who basically implores Zachary to take her to London, so she can be trained in the magical arts. Indeed, she has essentially been forced to become a lowly servant at a school in which the headmistress was her surrogate mother. Prunella, wishing to avoid this fate, decides that Zachary will enable her to learn more about her powers and perhaps even give her the opportunity to marry above her station. In this sense, the novel obviously resonates alongside the work of Jane Austen. You might call this novel Zen Cho’s version of the Victorian novel that has been mixed with fantasy and speculative narrative elements. Prunella’s “unfathomable gift” is a valise that contains seven eggs of familiars, which, if hatched, would make whoever commanded those familiars the most powerful sorcerer or sorceress in all of England. The plot gets complicated because Zachary must balance the future of the “magical” society against other upstarts who wish to command the group. Further still, England’s international relations have become muddied by an incident regarding Janda Baik, a tiny island territory part of Malaysia. The magically inclined women of this region perceive they are under attack and employ their powers to defy the Sultan, while being a general thorn in the side of anybody related to mystical arts. Zachary must navigate how to deal with these women, while also balancing his desire to remain a potent figurehead for the society. Of course, Prunella Gentleman offers the right amount of spontaneity to create one problem after another for Zachary. Cho’s work is whimsical and most of all humorous, which makes this novel a cut above so many others. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also weaves in some historical elements that create a kind of political and social texture. The novel thus breathes life into the international dynamics that supported the development of persistent colonial conquest, while keeping us entertained with such madcap characters. So, we will no doubt anticipate the next two works.

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A Review of Marie Lu’s The Rose Society (Penguin Young Readers, 2015).

So, I’ve been reading all of Marie Lu’s work ever since Legend, which now seems like it hails from a different reading lifetime. The Rose Society is Lu’s sequel to The Young Elites; I presume the work to be part of a trilogy, since this particular novel doesn’t end many different plot strands. I am finding this series quite fascinating because the protagonist, Adelina Amouteru, is something of an anti-heroine and certainly someone that many might consider to be a kind of villain. She is intent on revenge and often seems to enjoy the power that comes with killing. Lu’s work might be described as an X-Men tinged world but set in some earlier historical period in which characters seem to have some sort of European background (perhaps Italian?). In any case, in this particular fictional world, a blood fever that once raged through the population (think Black plague) has left a mark on many of the survivors, who are called malfettos. This term is derogatory, but some malfettos go on to harbor magical powers and many end up joining a group called the Daggers. In the last novel—and here is my spoiler warning as per usual—Adelina ended up forced out of the Daggers after it was presumed that she had betrayed them by having their leader Enzo (and presumed heir to the Kenettran throne) killed. In any case, in this new installment, Adelina and her younger sister Violetta, who we discover is also an elite with the intriguing power of negating the magical forces of other elites, are looking for a mythical individual named Magiano. They believe Magiano might have some key information and would be an instrumental ally in Adelina’s quest for revenge: she begins to realize that she must take the crown in order to save malfettos from their fates of almost certain hard labor and death. The throne is being held by Giuletta, but there is dissension among the ranks, as her lover Teren Santoro, who is an elite himself though hates his powers, is trying to kill off all malfettos in the city by rounding them into slave camps and working them into their graves. The daggers (who include Raffaele, Lucent, The Architect, and The Star Tief, who all return from the first book) are also banding together behind the power of Maeve, the Beldain leader, by attempting to gain entry into the Palace in order to bring Enzo back from the dead. Yes, my friends, Maeve is also an elite with the power to bring the dead back to life. There is one catch: bringing the dead back to life often give them amplified powers and for them to exist, they must be bound to a living individual. The plot strands come together as each team of elites, one lead by Adelina (her team will add an elite named The Rain Maker and is further supported by some other heavies) and the other by Maeve, end up intersecting in the capital city. Adelina employs her powers to confuse and to allow Maeve to resurrect Enzo only to allow him to be bound to Adelina instead of Raffaele. From here on out, it’s a mad dash to the plot-finish, as Adelina must regroup, try to find a way to make it so Teren Santoro will aid her to get her back into the palace, while Maeve and her elites attempt to carry out their plan to have the Beldish defeat the Kenettrans in a major military skirmish. Adelina is able to foil everyone’s plans: she forces Enzo to lay waste to the Beldish military, while she is able to make Teren kill Giuletta, when she implants an illusion that makes it seem as if Giuletta may actually be a malfetto, when she is not. Thus, Adelina ends up on the throne of Kenettra, but at the price of many dead bodies, the possible love that could have bloomed between her and Magiano, and the support of other powerful elites. Further still, the conclusion is particularly dark: Violetta reveals the possibility that all of those bestowed with elite powers may slowly be dying as a result of their use of magic. When Violetta attempts to lock down Adelina’s powers permanently, Adelina lashes out, leaving Adelina alone, pondering her future as queen. Obviously, there’s a lot of plot to cover, as is the case in so many young adult paranormal romance fictions, but there’s also a lot to praise here. I continue to enjoy the fact that Lu is risking the construction of a heroine that readers may not readily identify with by virtue of her darker yearnings. At the same time, Lu’s deft character construction allows us to contextualize why she would want so much revenge, death and destruction: Adelina is psychically traumatized and her twisted version of social justice comes from a place where she believes she can advocate for all malfettos. It doesn’t matter who gets in her way, so long as she herself is not the one who is in fear. Indeed, she wants to live in a world in which she gets to be the one that inspires fear rather than the other way around. In this sense, Lu has given us the young adult version of a magically-informed female Machiavelli, who will stop at nothing to perfect the vision of a new society in which those who are most socially marginalized will never cower in the shadows. Of course, readers will be well aware of the hypocrisies apparent in this vision, as Adelina herself must be involved in conflicts that end up killing some of her fellow elites, who do not share her darker vision of outright survival and conquest.

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A Review of Fatima Bhutto’s Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin Press, 2015)

So, after finishing the novel, I immediately had questions about the ending. I read the final sequence a couple of times and was still confused, so my first order of the day is to encourage some conversation about the conclusion simply based upon the plotting. In any case, Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin Press, 2015) is given this plot description at B&N (which also gives some spoilers to be sure): “Fatima Bhutto’s stunning debut novel chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a world on fire. Set during the American invasion of Afghanistan, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon begins and ends one rain-swept Friday morning in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border. Three brothers meet for breakfast. Soon after, the eldest, Aman Erum, recently returned from America, hails a taxi to the local mosque. Sikandar, a doctor, drives to the hospital where he works, but must first stop to collect his troubled wife, who has not joined the family that morning. No one knows where Mina goes these days. Sikandar is exhausted by Mina’s instability and by the pall of grief that has enveloped his family. But when, later in the morning, the two are taken hostage by members of the Taliban, Mina will prove to be stronger than anyone could have imagined. The youngest of the three leaves for town on a motorbike. An idealist, Hayat holds strong to his deathbed promise to their father—to free Mir Ali from oppressors. Seated behind him is a beautiful, fragile girl whose life and thoughts are overwhelmed by the war that has enveloped the place of her birth. Three hours later their day will end in devastating circumstances. In this beautifully observed novel, individuals are pushed to make terrible choices. And as the events of this single morning unfold, one woman is at the center of it all.” This description cannot fully encapsulate the problematic politics of the region of Mir Ali, which is a hotly contested area, as Taliban insurgents, American forces, and the Pakistani military all fight to retain control. Those in Mir Ali must decide where their loyalties lie. Bhutto makes clear through her fictional depictions that no one can stay neutral: the fact of war forces people to make decisions and to express views that reveal their alliances. Many of these alliances are not necessarily given to any official entities. Mina, for instance, and perhaps even her husband Sikander, find the rhetoric behind any freedom fighting entity to be suspect given the possibility of collateral damage. Others like Aman Erun will sell loyalty in order to find escape from a war torn land, if only transitorily. Bhutto tells this story in shifting third; there is a more diffuse quality to the storytelling, which somehow provides the proper naturalistic aesthetic here. We know even before the narrator tells us that we’re hurtling toward some terrible ending, even if it is not directly conveyed. The chess pieces have all been put into place, and they have no great amount control over their movements. The family’s trajectory is thus somehow already predestined. Thus, brief moments of possibility and potentiality are all the more heartbreaking to observe, simply because they already appear ephemeral, something that all the characters seem to know, despite their best intentions to change the course of their lives. Bhutto also provides an effective context to understand why some disaffected youths might choose to radicalize. Given the continuing uproar over Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist discourse (especially in light of recent events both in the United States and elsewhere), Bhutto’s novel strikes as a particularly incisive work that speaks to the contemporary international relations.

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