Demons stalking the streets, hidden from ordinary view and prying eyes, living their lives as ordinary people. A pair of goddesses in a long term, loving, and sometimes fraught relationship. A (relatively) ordinary mortal, swept up in events by a chance meeting with one of the aforementioned demons, drawing her deeper into a magical portion of the world. This sounds like the latest urban fantasy, doesn’t it? The city is probably New York City, maybe London, right? The Goddesses are probably Greco-Roman, maybe Norse? The demon is probably of Judeo-Christian origin? Bog standard Urban Fantasy, right?
No, no, no, and no. The Goddesses are Chinese, and one of them is a gender-flipped version of a God from Chinese Mythology. And yes, they are married (and oh the scandal in Heaven!). Similarly, the demons are from that same tradition, and the city is Hong Kong. This is urban fantasy, if one will call it that, of a different sort. This is Scale-Bright, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Scale-Bright, at its heart, is the story of Julienne and the relationships she inherits, forges, strengthens, and navigates. Her role, poised on the edge of myth and magic, differentiates the novella from other urban fantasies I’ve read. She’s human and mortal, but she also has familial ties to the mythic, and those ties manifest in the personages of Houyi and Chang’e. It’s an interesting interface — to have a human person (although not entirely ordinary) whose relationship with her many-times-removed aunts is a strong and interestingly rendered social tie. This social dynamic is important and resonant, and it is something you don’t often find in a lot of Western Urban fantasy. When the plot unspools and Julienne’s status and nature lets her meet the demon Olivia, the social ramifications of that choice, and transgression, are what the novella concerns itself with. This richness of interaction and the exposure of cultures far beyond the Great Wall of Europe is a real indication of the power and potential of bringing World SF to me as a reader — and to other readers as well.
Scale-Bright goes far beyond just an interesting social dynamic, however. We get some interesting world-building as Julienne navigates our world and an interstitial world beyond ours in the course of the development of her relationship with Olivia. And beyond that is the implied and explained mythological history and cosmology behind those interstitial stories and behind the characters. It is as if I am sitting in a boat approaching Kowloon bay and the mist slowly lifts to reveal a city, a world I had never seen and have only imagined. I’ve had some exposure to this mythic matter before, on screen and in print, but never in such a form or from such a talented author.
The language and writing of the book is the other reason to immerse yourself into the world of Scale-Bright. Not only for subject matter or characters is Bee a talent, but it is also her lyrical turn of phrase, her wonderful eye for evoking description and emotion. Her words flow into a reader and draw them into the world and the characters with a stunning ease. Before you know it, you are in Hong Kong, inside of the character’s stories — you are within a world of lovely words.
Half of the e-book of Scale Bright is composed of the titular novella, and the other half contains a set of stories detailing the backstories of Houyi and Chang’e. These stories are even more mythic in structure and nature, and I was reminded of the roleplaying worlds of Exalted and Glorantha. While those games are and were written in the Western World, they strongly draw from traditions beyond the Western, and I could see how Bee uses and remixes myth in ways that the roleplaying games do. Where else are you going to find archers who shoot down nine out of ten suns to save the world? I think the book should have had the stories come first, however. Reading the stories firmed up the two characters and made their arcs clear — had I read them first, I would have been better prepared for meeting them in Scale-Bright.
Whether one reads the stories in the Scale-Bright volume first, or the novella first and the stories afterwards, reading this book is a must for anyone interested in World SF. The prequel stories are available in a free e-book edition for those who just want a taste of Bee’s work before committing to the novella itself, and I commend reluctant or nervous readers to do that, first. Scale-Bright is confirmation of Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s talent and a validation of her nomination for a John W. Campbell Award in 2013. Her talent is incandescently bright.