Sunday, August 7, 2022

WITMonth Day 7 | Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge tr. Jeremy Tiang | Review

I actually originally purchased Strange Beasts of China well over a year ago. Or, rather, I received it as part of a subscription to Tilted Axis Press I had that year. Yan Ge's Strange Beasts of China (translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang) was the last book of my subscription. It arrived several weeks after publication, completely water-damaged and moldy. Suffice to say, I could not read it. One year later, I decided to buy the US hardcover edition (...I like hardcovers, sue me!). Within a couple weeks of this second acquisition, I had finished the book and could think over what I had just read.

There was a lot to consider. My gut sense of the book is that it's good - it's good! - and I stand by that. On a technical level, the novel is excellent, with a wondrous balance between its fantasy elements and its exploration of the human condition. It's hard not to appreciate any story that so cleverly delves into humanity through the lens of a fictionalized other. (Hi, I'm a giant Star Trek fan.) It's also a book that in my head rings as fairly "confident", whatever that might mean. There's something about how it flows and how neat it is that I'm not sure is present for many other books. A self-awareness and clear bit of editing.

And yet I didn't love it. Even months later, I'm still not entirely sure why. As I said, it's such a technically good book that it's hard to put my finger on what it was that didn't work for me. The writing was great, certainly. The translation too. The imagery and world-building were fantastic. So what was it? The narrator's cool voice, perhaps? The constant sense that the story was rewriting its own context as it progressed?

The thing about good, smart novels is that they often force the reader to reassess their very own reading as its happening. This happened to me a few times with Strange Beasts of China. I had, in my mind, the vague notion that someone had once commented that when they'd finished the novel, they immediately went back to start the book over again, to reframe the beginning. By the time I reached the novel's end, I could no longer be certain that I had, in fact, read any such remark about Strange Beasts of China in particular. Maybe it was about a different book altogether. Yet that was the thought that remained imprinted on my mind as I worked my way through the book. Chapter by chapter, sub-story by sub-story, I found myself trying to recontextualize what I had previously read, based on whatever new information emerged from the latest story. It made for somewhat exhausting reading, though obviously it was entirely my own fault. 

There's no doubt in my mind that Strange Beasts of China is not only a good book, but also a special one. It was clever in the way its stories unfolded and brushed shoulders. It was intelligent in its pacing and restraint, lasting exactly the length it needed to be. The book works in a way that many novels simply don't. And as a work of genre fiction, it's wonderful in the way it merges urban fantasy, folklore, and hints of horror without ever feeling overcome by any one genre. If small things ended up making me like this without loving it, it has little bearing on the actual quality of the text or whether I think someone else might enjoy it. Strange Beasts of China is a good book. More people should read it.

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