Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.