September 07, 2017
(+++) CHINA CONNECTIONS
An Excess Male. By Maggie Shen King. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Breath of Earth #2: Call of Fire. By Beth Cato. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
China and its people loom large in these novels, one a near-future dystopia and the other a magic-infused alternative history. Dystopias are all the rage these days, probably because there is so much rage floating about, but Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male stands out for its setting: a China whose one-child policy and preference for boys over girls have had the inevitable effect of creating a population with substantially more men than women. There are unintended consequences, of course; that is what the novel is all about. With 40 million more men than women, “excess” males abound, one of them being fortysomething protagonist Lee Wei-guo. A master personal trainer – voted one of the top men in his field in Beijing five years in a row – Wei-guo leads his team in the Strategic Games, established by the government as an outlet for aggression. There are also government-sanctioned ways of obtaining pleasure, although homosexuality has been criminalized (along with mental illness). Although successful in his professional life, Wei-guo desperately wants the companionship of marriage, which is difficult and expensive for excess males to arrange despite society’s acceptance of polyandry (women are allowed, even encouraged, to take multiple husbands, the hope being that the extended families will breed more girls to correct the gender imbalance eventually). Wei-guo meets Wu May-ling through a matchmaker and immediately thinks that she and her family are the place for him. She already has two husbands, brothers Hann and Xiong-xin (known as XX), and a toddler son named BeiBei. May-ling is in love with Hann, but he is secretly gay, which is to say “willfully sterile” in a society where homosexuality is illegal. May-ling does not particularly want to be married to XX, or he to her, but that is how things are. King does a good job of providing some insight into the characters beyond their physical descriptions, by having chapters narrated by different people; nevertheless, the main things readers need to know about May-ling’s husbands are that Hann is big, brash and forthright, while XX is brilliant but shy and socially awkward. There is the inevitable uneasy mixture of personalities when Wei-guo is matched with this family; and then the story takes on a sinister air when a Strategic Games battle goes beyond the usual bounds in a deadly way. Or is what happens in the games not a comparatively harmless way to handle aggressive impulses? After all, the society is totalitarian, and its primary goal is to maintain order and stability… King’s book draws to somewhat too great a degree on prior dystopias, from 1984 to Ender’s Game, with a touch of The Handmaid’s Tale in gender reversal; as a result, many of its plot points seem familiar, even though the specific events are not necessarily predictable. But if the underlying exploration of love in an Orwellian society is scarcely new, the insight into ways people try to keep their emotional connections alive despite societal repression are explored with care and sensitivity.
Beth Cato’s Call of Fire is a far more superficial novel, with few pretensions beyond that of the usual fantasy-genre entertainment. Here there is a Chinese connection both through the use of some aspects of China’s culture and through the way in which protagonist Ingrid Carmichael becomes horrified by the racism and segregation that Chinese people face from the Unified Pacific (UP) – a world-dominating alliance of America and Japan. Being female and of mixed race, Ingrid has her own personal experience of being marginalized, cast out and looked down on – not to mention the fact that she and her Japanese mentor, Mr. Sakaguchi, are on the run from the military and the powerful and ruthless Ambassador Blum, who in addition to his aspirations for world dominance by the UP is a shape-shifter. If this sounds rather mixed up and overly complicated, that is because it is rather mixed up and overly complicated. In her previous book, Breath of Earth, Cato imagined a world in which geomancers play a crucial role by absorbing earth energy and moving it into storage crystals that power cars, homes, flying cars and so forth. It is a geomantic failure – the geomancers’ base is destroyed, with Ingrid and Mr. Sakaguchi the only known survivors – that leads to the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which is caused by the unleashing of untamed energy. It is because of their survival that Ingrid and her mentor come under suspicion of doing dastardly deeds and are therefore on the run – specifically, aboard an airship belonging to Ingrid’s friend-and-mild-love-interest, Cy Jennings. (And speaking of China, Mr. Sakaguchi has a Chinese servant named Lee who is, guess what, concealing a secret.) Anyway, Ingrid and her compatriots head out of San Francisco toward Seattle, encountering mythical-but-real-in-this-series creatures such as thunderbirds and the Chinese qilin. They also have to deal with a fox spirit masquerading as one of the 12 directors of the UP. And then there is Theodore Roosevelt, here portrayed as an ambassador whom Ingrid has known since childhood – and an ally against Ambassador Blum. In the midst of all the helter-skelter activity, Ingrid is trying to learn more about her magical abilities and where they come from. It looks as if her father, whom she met at the end of Breath of Earth and who has more than a few screws loose, may be the son of none other than Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawaii. Over-complicated and overly concerned with tossing out multiple plot points so they can be followed up in future books, Call of Fire will be fun for readers who do not take Cato’s alternative-history world building too seriously and do not mind having characters and incidents appear willy-nilly out of the woodwork from time to time. This is clearly a “continuation” novel, using the world created in the previous book as background for one of those standard good-vs.-evil, escape-to-learn-about-yourself plots that recur in fantasy after fantasy. The Chinese cultural elements here (and a few from Japan) do lend the book a kind of exotic charm, but its basic structure is unsurprising, as is the way Cato leaves plenty of loose ends so she can explore things further in books still to come.