This week I went back to Tor.com to take a look at another short story by JY Yang. I read another short story by Yang earlier this year and LOVED it, so was very interested to read something else by this author. You can read the short story for free here…
So some of you may not know this, but I majored in Chinese language and literature in college and I’ve actually spent a lot of time in China. I no longer have a day job that requires me to use Mandarin, so I’m growing rustier by the day, but suffice it to say that I know a lot about the Chinese language and culture. Lo and behold, this story has a lot of Chinese songs and poems interspersed throughout, along with many details that draw upon Chinese culture, so this added a fun element to the piece for me. I will say, though, that some translations for the Chinese text could go a long way in bridging the cultural gap for an English-speaking audience. I can understand not including a translation for a language with many English cognates, such as Spanish or French, but Chinese is decidedly not that.
I ultimately had a difficult time connecting with this story. It’s another one of those short stories where there is a ton of worldbuilding, but in the “thrown in the deep end of the pool” style. In media res-style details are tough enough in longer works, let alone in short fiction. All the details, with very little seeded explanation, made the whole narrative feel ungrounded. I also think this would be a doubly challenging story for readers who do not have any sort of background in Chinese; there are no translations provided for the Chinese text, and many Chinese cultural and historical touchpoints are thrown in without explanation. For example:
Only the starmages have the ability to defeat the Starmage General. But their suits have a limiter that stops them from performing the Seventy Two Transformations, and that is under the Starmage General’s control.
In the above quote, this was the first time I was hearing anything about the “Seventy Two Transformations.” In fact, this is the only time the transformations are mentioned in the entire story. However, a quick Google search revealed that the transformations are performed by a character in Journey to the West, a Chinese literary classic. I happen to think it’s cool that these referential details are included, but a little seeded explanation or context would be appreciated.
I also don’t understand why the author chose to put the whole piece in second POV. It’s a bold move that didn’t seem to add much to the story, and I’m curious to know the rationale behind the decision.
Whew, Short Tuesday has gone on a bit longer than I anticipated! To sum up, this was an interesting read, especially for someone with an interest in Chinese language and culture, but there were many aspects that took away from the story as a whole.