Wednesday 19 April 2023

bookreview: Under the Pendulum Sun | Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum SunUnder the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Under the Pendulum Sun came very heavily recommended to me. But as all TBRs go (even physical ones), it just sits on the shelf for a while... for 4 years in this case.

Let's start off with the heavy stuff, a content warning for incest in this case. If this is something you will never touch, then this is a book you'll want to skip, even if it only develops midway through. [Spoilers at the end of this review!]

Arcadia, the magical land of the fae, is a dark, mysterious place. Nothing is as it seems, everything is a construct, seemingly made to mirror or mimic the real world - but in strangely bizarre ways. No one knows if the fae have souls and yet missionaries do what they have always done - go into the darkest reaches of the world to bring the word of God. It is a very well-constructed world, one full of fancy and also full of darkness, and Ng does a fantastic job leading us through it. She utilises many familiar elements from fairy tales: Mab the Queen of the Fae, changelings and stolen children, the fae hunt - and yet it's intertwined with extra-biblical myth: Enochian the language of angels, origins of Lilith.

Catherine Helstone plunges blindly into Arcadia in search of her missing brother, Laon. There, she wrestles with the gospel and with sin. Is salvation only for humans or does it extend to the fae? Do the fae have souls or are they soulless, like animals or constructs? If they are soulless, can they then still be saved? Is there a point in having a missions outpost in the fae worlds if salvation is not extended to them?

Yet she is not the only one wrestling with faith. Laon, the missionary brother, struggles with sin and worthiness. Is he worthy to carry the gospel if there is sin in his heart, even if he doesn't act on it? Where is the line between resisting temptation and being sinful because he cannot let go of his lustful thoughts? What compromises can he make to carry the gospel to the innermost parts of Arcadia? Or will the requirements of the Pale Queen invalidate his testimony and his good works?

Ng peppers the book with quotations from scripture, as well as excerpts of medieval-sounding texts that present missionary efforts and theological arguments in an alternate earth where the fae are real. It sounds more Christian than I would expect from a fantasy book, exploring deep questions of faith and Christian theology; yet as it is a fantasy world and a fiction book, it does not provide any semblance of answers, only more questions.

Ultimately, however, the set-up of the creation of the fae and the fantastical underpinnings of fae society as imagined by Ng presents a skewed gospel; a reminder, that you will, that this is not a biblical work. Under the Pendulum Sun leads to an almost-inevitable ending, one I wish were not her conclusion.

Still, I would put it as a sort of fantasy counterpart to Steve Rzasa's sci-fi exploration of whether aliens can be saved in For Us Humans: A Tale of Alien Occupation.

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Wednesday 12 April 2023

#bookreview: UNSAID: An Asian Anthology | Anitha Devi Pillai (ed.)

UNSAID: An Asian AnthologyUNSAID: An Asian Anthology by Anitha Devi Pillai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

UNSAID: An Asian Anthology started off strong, but ended up a little meh towards the end. It was a really weird feeling of going "ooh I really like the stories in this anthology" to "ummmm like that only ah?", especially since the sequence of stories moved from sad, dark real-to-life stories I tend to get bored by to supernatural, legend type stories that I tend to like so I kind of expected it to be the inverse.

The first four stories in The Others category deal with dark matters - the constant othering and prejudices many Asians face, even within their own cities. Nothing is more relatable than Saras Manickam's "When We Are Young"; which non-Malay Malaysian hasn't faced this very scenario? How often do we have to talk about meritocracy and quotas for nothing to change? Cherrie Sing's "The Taste of Pickles" also elicited nods: yes, these things happen, what can you do about it? "Broken Filaments" by Paul GnanaSelvam presents a very odd premise - yet I can imagine it happening in small-town Malaysia in the 80s; we all know weird old teachers like that with strange ideas and the inability to accept a no. I resonated with the home-away-from-home in "Diwali Lights" by Adwiti Subba Haffner; that feeling of in-betweenness where you long for what was even though you know that the here and now are your true home.

Knotted Ties explores relationships, both familial and within the local community. Of the five stories here, the middle three (The Peanut Turtle, The Broken Window, Lata) stood out to me. These are the kinds of stories that I, personally, would like to read more of: that dissonance between your own and your adopted cultures, of having to match what you know with what you were supposed to have known. "The Peanut Turtle" (Dennis Yeo) was the most intriguing, probably because of the format. It switched between the protagonist's first trip to Malaysia as a child (told in the present tense), and something like a memoir (diary?) of the events written in the future that explained the historical & cultural background plus many of the gaps in the child's knowledge - which really made for a strange reading. Oddly enough, it works. Whilst I did like "The Apartment of Good Intentions" (Adriana Nordin Manan), it ended rather abruptly and felt a little incomplete to me.

That dissatisfaction of "huh, something feels missing here" carried over into the last section, The Unknown, which felt like the weakest set of the whole anthology. Maybe I was bored by the time I got to it, I don't know, or maybe I've read too many similar ghost/supernatural stories that nothing really stood out or got me excited in this batch of stories. Or maybe there was just too much revenge going on, whether in life or from beyond the grave. That said, they're interesting enough, and still worth a read.

As a whole, Unsaid is a solid collection of short stories set in Asia. (I hesitate to say "by Asians" because there are a couple of names that don't seem to be specifically Asian based on their bios.)

Note: I received a review of this book from PRH SEA. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday 5 April 2023

#bookreview: The Rise and Fall of a Social Network | Dane Cobain The Rise and Fall of a Social The Rise and Fall of a Social Network by Dane Cobain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Roberts takes up a developer job at the upcoming social network, a network that releases posts from its users upon their deaths. Plagued with bad code, financial troubles and twitchy founders, things take a turn for the worse when a journalist and an ex-staff turn up dead after a big announcement. There's some shady business going on and the longer Dan stays, the harder it is for him to leave without dire repercussions.

Cobain showcases a truly toxic start-up culture in John Mayers, one of the founders, tells Dan upfront that the job will kill his social life and ruin his relationships, also ending the job interview on a weirdly threatening note, saying they need full commitment, and once they're in there's no turning back. Both bosses are extremely erratic, the company runs on unpaid overtime instead of hiring enough staff, and pay is low but with the promise of payment in stocks. And yet, if you think about it, much of this has been normalised in our current capitalistic work culture, where people are encouraged to put their jobs and work commitments above their families and relationships.

What fascinated me most was the warped social fabric woven around Dan and his colleagues, one that encompasses all their lives and pulls them all into a little silo that's disconnected from the real world. And that's also another question the text grapples with: what lengths would someone take to protect their money and reputation? And if the company is all they have left, what would they do to protect it, even over others' lives?

Overall, The Rise and Fall of a Social Network is a really interesting read.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from the author. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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