The first fully-formed thought I had about Scale-Bright, a 2014 novella by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is that it begs to be made into a graphic novel. A demon theater with pendant lights of upside-down jellyfish and patrons with dragonfly wings, threaded with “blue capillaries that as on a leaf catch light, the wing-membrane thinner than a whisper of glass,” cry for visual artistry. Book me a ticket to Banfaudou, kthx?
All of Sriduangkaew’s work that I’ve read is filled with vivid sensory imagery like that. What else sets this novella apart is that it packs so much into its wee package; it’s quite a feat of scale. It’s got adventure, romance, and suspense — even a touch of comedy. It’s a celebration of cities, both the seedy and sublime. It’s a genre-bender, combining Chinese mythic fiction, urban fantasy, portal fantasy, and a coming-of-age story of a woman in her mid-twenties.
We follow protagonist Julienne, whose life was mundane until she first made the acquaintance of her immortal aunts, the woman who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. Strange happenings begin to confront her in day-to-day life; one day after work she comes across a grievously injured woman dressed head-to-toe in emerald green. Julienne can tell she isn’t what she seems but reluctantly rescues her, setting off a chain of events that draws her into the celestial feuds that have dogged her aunts for thousands of years — as well as an ancient story of snake women in which she creates a role of her own.
Scale-Bright is the longest in a group of stories set within the same mythos; the accompanying The Archer Who Shot Down Suns contains three shorts concerning most of these same six female characters. While Julienne is the one the reader identifies with, and her aunt by blood Chang’e is the most mysterious, it’s her aunt by marriage Houyi that’s my favorite — she’s shrewd with a fierce sense of honor and sardonic sense of humor:
Marshal, I suggested you pretend that I’m a man as a rhetorical bid — one I hoped would bring you a glimmer of self-awareness. This seems to have met with abject failure.
The longest of the accompanying stories “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” features several such moments as Houyi fends off a succession of ever-more-tiresome male suitors.
What’s remarkable about these characters in concert, though, is that despite having very different personalities, whether demigod or human or demon, they all possess the same steel-spined tenacity. And thus despite their goals often conflicting with one another, it’s impossible not to root for all of them. Some are even mortal enemies, the background of which is revealed in predecessors within The Archer Who Shot Down Suns. So while it’s not necessary to read all the shorts in order to enjoy this one, doing so provides greater depth. The stories aren’t exactly self-contained or continuous either, but rather coil around each other, like snakes.
Scale-Bright is recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy with complex female characters, and is on a very tiny list of books that made me both snort with laughter and cry a little.