Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

“Her bigotry had destroyed everything good in her life, and still she couldn’t twist free of it.”

Burning Roses by S.L. Huang is an adult own-voices Queer Chinese fantasy novella about Rose (a.k.a. Red Riding Hood) and an archer named Hou Yi. Together they join forces to stop deadly sunbirds from ravaging the countryside. Their journey shall take them into a reckoning of terrible sacrifices, a mourning of mistakes, of choices, and also of family amid a quest for immortality.

Burning Roses is a story that beguiled me from beginning to end. The richness of the culture, the complexities of intertwining a multitude of fairy tales to share an overarching narrative, the flawed yet highly engaging characters that readers begin to root for, and the themes of nostalgia-ridden soul-searching—all of these facets had me captivated from its very first page, making it one of the best novellas that I have read in all of 2020.

The most intimidating aspect of this book is that it retells a large handful of familiar, mostly Western fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Beauty and the Beast, and Hou Yi (a Chinese fairy tale). They are all effortlessly interwoven to depict a perfectly paced and intricate narrative about what it means to get older and to try to find some semblance of peace within oneself. Older readers especially will feel a deeply intimate relation to these specific topics, more so if one has ever felt that life spiralled past them too quickly or was too full of regrets. Because of this the essence of the tale that unfolds is decidedly dark. It was so unexpected that when I became enveloped by its presence I was left feeling immensely surprised and wholeheartedly delighted by its progression.

When we think about fairy tales usually we are left with images of gallant heroes saving their significant others, or embarking on grand adventures full of splendour. While there is plenty of splendour and magic to go around within the universe of Burning Roses, the heroes are not what they seem to be. Envisioning good characters turning into morally grey or even villainous ones was some of the most creatively seductive elements of the reading experience.

Even with these glorious attributes, the bulk of Burning Roses’ beauty lies in its main characters. Hou Yi—a gender-bent depiction—and Rose were mesmerising in their struggles with their inner turmoil and their sapphic romance. The more acclimated we become with the introspective ghosts that haunt them and the purpose of their journey, the easier it becomes to wish for their happy ending. I felt a kinship with both individuals on a personal level as they reminded me so much of my parents, a point I am sure was intentional. The cerebral thematic elements of Burning Roses orbits the notion of parents living vicariously via their children, a notion that many Asian kids and kids of conservative communities will be able to correlate to, I am sure.

My only critique of the novella is in regard to the world-building. It is such an imaginative universe that sometimes feels rather underdeveloped. This may be due to the short length (approximately one-hundred-sixty pages) or it can be attributed to the concentration on character growth. Either way, I adored what was shared and craved for more concrete dimension to the settings and atmosphere of this fantastic realm.

Overall, I highly recommend Burning Roses to readers of multicultural fantasies and to fans of beautifully re-imagined fairy tale retellings alike.


Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Tordotcom.

Publication Date: 29-September-2020
Publisher: Tordotcom
Genre: Adult Fantasy, Chinese Literature, LGBTQIA+ Literature
Page Count: 160
GoodReads: Burning Roses S.L. Huang

The Prelude to Insurrection by J.C. Kang

“Jie’s heart leaped into her throat. How had she not heard someone approach on the nightingale floors, or even open the door? She spun around, hand reaching for her bladed hairpin.”

Book Cover

Prelude to Insurrection by J.C. Kang is short story introduction to the author’s expansive #OwnVoices Chinese adult fantasy series, Legends of Tivara. It follows a young orphan half-elf spy known as Jie as she tries to thwart a dangerous rebellion before it even begins.

My acquaintanceship with J.C. Kang’s multi-book universe occurred late one evening while I was browsing Amazon’s catalogue of fantasy Kindle e-books. Overwhelmed by the various connecting serials, I visited the author’s website where they shared a recommended reading order for all books in the Legends of Tivara series. Prelude to Insurrection was the suggested place to begin, so I bought a copy  for ninety-nine cents and read it immediately.

Being only seventy-four pages long, the short story is a decent way to whet one’s appetite for a historical Asian-inspired fantasy narrative. The first thing I noticed was how descriptive the settings were without being overwhelming or too wordy. The manner of which everything is described helped transport me to the location and situation that the main character Jie was embroiled in. I also appreciated the way the character’s facial expressions were portrayed as that is something that I feel is often trudged over in short stories, more so if there is already a familiarity with the cast members being depicted.

The action sequences were written very well and created an almost cinematic picture wheel in my mind as I read on. It was fast-paced and pleasantly flowing, emanating an escapism suffused adventure. This worked to add some intrigue to the hints of political strife that were woven into Jie’s mission. My hope is that the political upheaval that was teased shall be expounded upon in the full-length novels that follow because the small revelations that were shared were quite interesting.

If there’s any complaint to be had about the short story, it would be that it was, well, too short, which made it seem one-dimensional and bit pointless as a starting position for a whole series. There just was not enough information provided to completely hook me into wanting to learn more about the world of Tivara. However, if I had picked up Prelude to Insurrection after already having read a couple of the full-sized books, I am sure that I would feel differently about it.

All in all, Prelude to Insurrection was a pleasant little tale that fell a tiny bit too brief as a launching platform for a whole fantasy series. My goal is to return to it again in the future when I have more fleshed out knowledge about the political tension, the important characters, and the sort of person Jie is as both a spy and as a normal person outside of that role. I do recommend the author’s writings though. It’s rather superb and shows immense promise.

The Moon in the Palace (The Empress of Bright Moon #1) by Weina Dai Randel

In truth, we were similar. Like two sides of a fan, we were at odds with each other, we competed with each other, but our fates similarly rested in the hands of the Emperor–the holder, the commander, the manipulator of our destinies.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel is an #OwnVoices Chinese historical fiction novel that is the first in a duology chronicling the life of Empress Wu as she rose from a simple concubine to become one of the most powerful rulers in Chinese history. The story begins with a little girl named Mei who is picked to become a potential paramour for the Emperor. In the wake of her father’s demise, she is whisked away to the palace, never to see her family again. When a rare opportunity arises for her to capture the Emperor’s attention, she crafts a gift that he will never forget, setting into motion an array of events that shall ultimately steal Mei’s childhood innocence to morph her into a calculatingly intelligent and resourceful woman of the court.

This is a difficult book to review because there are so many captivating elements about it, yet it was also quite challenging for me to stay invested in Mei’s journey from beginning to end due to its extremely basic prose.

The best parts of The Moon in the Palace are with the moments of intrigue and suspense that comes with palace politics, particularly where oppressed female roles are involved. Mei learns that not everything is as she fantasised about when she was younger, and that the privilege of visiting with the Emperor is exactly that: an honour awarded to only a handful of women who have proven themselves to be memorable to him. Friendships are superficial and a means to climbing the ladder of prestige and any hint of compassions is usually tied to a thread of devastating deception. The author has a talent for building tension slowly that makes the reader want to root for Mei while protecting her from the doom that is inevitable.

I knew now: love and destiny were two wild horses that could not be curbed. They galloped in different directions and ran down different paths where streams of desire and hope would not converge. To follow one was to betray the other. To make one happy was to break the other’s heart. Yet I supposed that was part of life, a lesson we had to learn. To grow up was also to give up, and to build the future was to dissolve the past. The only thing we could do was hope for the best, to believe that the horse we chose would find us a safe destination.

Since there are so many levels to the depths that people go to for power and authority, the story becomes dark and tragic very quickly. It is also powerfully vicious and emotionally tight; all necessary ingredients for an extraordinary exposition on the internal workings of Chinese state-ship at the time. The only thing that really diminishes the quality of the narrative as a whole is the overly simplistic prose.

The tone did not fit the time period at all and came off as rather contemporary in nature. If I did not already have prior knowledge of the book’s particular era, I would be inclined to believe that this was a modern-day telling of Empress Wu’s beginnings, just without the use of technology. There was also a lack of emotion in many dialogue exchanges and interactions that Mei had with other women of the court. There were only two women who evoked any sort of emotional response or association while reading, and they were ones that had impactful roles as well, which greatly alleviated the monotonous feel of the people of the court.

Lastly, the story is incredibly drawn-out. I understand the need for meticulous use of details, and I often appreciate the tediousness that comes with the historical fiction genre. However, with The Moon in the Palace, it would have been better to use some well-placed time jumps to cover more of the lacking portions. The pacing does pick up significantly within the final one-third to one-fourth or the novel, and that was where I finally began to feel more invested with the plot and Mei’s journey. I merely wish the first 70% was not such a slog to get through. By the time I arrived at the climax, I had utterly disconnected with the all the characters and storyline.

Even so, I recommend this book to fans of Chinese historical fiction. Some readers may appreciate the graduality of the novel more than I did, and as I mentioned, there are some rather marvellous aspects to The Moon in the Palace that can be overlooked by the slower development. At the very least, the beginnings of Empress Wu’s life in this fictional telling is still quite provocative and culturally fascinating; definitely worth experiencing, especially if one is an enthusiast of cultural histories.