Monday, 9 October 2017

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho is a collection of short fiction by the author of Sorcerer to the Crown and several other works of fiction that I've enjoyed. I bought the book some time ago, when I read Cho's other work, but only just got around to reading it, mostly thanks to challenging myself to read more short stories. I'm a bit disappointed in myself for putting it off for so long.

"If you live near the jungle, you will realise that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two."

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

The ebook edition of Campbell-nominated author Zen Cho's short story collection SPIRITS ABROAD features 15 speculative short stories, author commentary, and an ebook-only cover by artist Likhain (likhain.net).

Overall, I loved this book. Of course, I didn't love every single story, but I thought most of them were great and there were only a few stories that didn't click with me. The collection is divided into three sections: Here, There, Elsewhere, and Going Back, which is an interesting thematic grouping of stories. The "Here" stories were mostly set in Malaysia, the "There" stories were mostly set in the UK, the "Elsewhere" stories were either set in non-Earthly or non-specific locations, and the "Going Back" stories were mostly set in Malaysia but perhaps not quite. All the stories had some sort of fantasy element to them. For the most part this structure worked well. Out of fifteen stories, there were only four I didn't love, which is a pretty good hit rate. I also liked how the stories had author's notes which could be read after the story or skipped entirely and the ebook was set up with handy links to take you between story and notes and back to the next story with minimal effort.

The stories all (I think?) have some Malaysian elements to them, which Cho does not shy away from. We are treated to Manglish and mythology/folklore and a good dose of humour (although I should note that not all of the stories are funny — some are a bit depressing). There were a few stories that were linked by being about some of the same people, including two set in a contemporary version of the Sorcerer to the Crown world, which I would love to read more of.

If you've been following my short story reading challenge, you will have seen some of my comments on the individual stories in this collection. I am still including my usual story-by-story commentary, but it might feel a bit repetitive. Sorry about that.

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Here

The First Witch of Damansara — A delightful story about a Malaysian woman living in the West who goes home to KL for her grandmother’s funeral. An excellent and very entertaining read that reminded me how much I love Cho’s writing.

First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia — This story had a bit of a slow start before the spec fic element came to the fore. It was interesting, but it was a bit sad and less inherently amusing by its nature. 

House of Aunts — a longer story about a teenage girl with a surfeit of aunts, all of them undead. Being sixteen and undead is not so bad when you have so many aunts looking after you, but not being allowed to have friends at your new school is a bit harder. An excellent story on the longer side (novelette range by Hugo definitions) that’s slightly gory (people are eaten) but otherwise a fun read. 

There

One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland — Malaysian (and other nationalities) girls at an English boarding school in the present-day countryside come up against fairies, the malicious kind. An amusing and quick read.

狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows) — A lovely story about a lion dance troupe and the ghost they’re paid to get rid of. 

七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum) — Another lion dance story which, I was delighted to learn, has some crossover characters with the previous story. It also conveyed the main character’s love for the lion very well. 

The Mystery of the Suet Swain — A story about boys being creepy and a stalker and female friendship, set at university.

Prudence and the Dragon — A hilarious story set in a present day version of the Sorcerer to the Crown London. I think the most I’ve laughed in this collection so far and there were heaps of delightful background/worldbuilding details that really made the story.

The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life — Sort of a sequel/companion story to the previous, focussing on Prudence’s best friend Angela. Unlike Prudence, Angela is very sensitive to magic and close proximity to a dragon caused some of her issues to physically manifest. Another amusing story. I would be more than happy to read a novel set in this time period of this world.

Elsewhere

The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote — the story of finding a hole in the forest and dealing with a forest spirit, told by an earth spirit. Not my favourite story in this collection.

Liyana — a depressing but really fascinating story. A class of folklore idea that I don’t think I’ve come across before. But also, more than metaphorically about women’s sacrifice for the family.

The Four Generations of Chang E — A story about being the child of immigrants and fitting in or not. Also aliens on the moon. And from the authors notes, some mythological subtext that went over my head.

Going Back

The Many Deaths is Hang Jebat — was a bit confusing and I was a bit lost as to where it was going until I read the author’s notes and saw that it was based on mythology I had no knowledge of. The summary in the author’s notes made yet a bit clearer and I can now see what the author was trying to do, but the story doesn’t work that well on its own.

The Fish Bowl — a dawning horror story about the pressure to do well in school and a concerning bargain with a magic fish. Harrowing. I quite liked the story, but I wanted a bit more from the end than we got, I think.

Balik Kampung — a story about a ghost returning to earth for the Hungry Ghost Festival and, in the course of events, finding out how she died. A good story to end the collection on. Some humour, some sadness.
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In general, I want to read more of Cho's writing and look forward to getting my hands on the short stories not included in Spirits Abroad while I wait for the sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown to come out. I highly recommend Spirits Abroad to fans of short fiction and spec fic. There's a lot to like about this collection and I think more people should experience it.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Buku Fixi
Series: No (except two stories were set in the Sorcerer to the Crown world, I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Smashwords

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