This is a collection of 16 modern retellings of various Asian myths, legends and folklore.
Minor Trigger Warning: Unhealthy Relationships and Violence.
I give this book 3.5 stars (out of five). This book is 16 retellings of Asian myths and legends of many various cultures and places. Each retelling also has a section written by the author that explains the origins of their story and why they chose or wrote it the way they did. In this review I will be writing a short section for each retelling and will include some spoilers for each story. Overall I really liked this concept and I think it would be really interesting to see similar stories from other cultures and places. I also really like the title and I think it’s fitting for this book.
Disclaimer: For most of these stories I don’t have any background knowledge of the original stories going into it so these are my own interpretation and opinions.
- Forbidden Fruit By: Roshani Chokshi (Filipino)
This is a love story about a mountain goddess and a mortal man. People got jealous of him when they saw his blessings so they killed him before the two love interests were able to marry. She didn’t see him for a while but thought he left her for another woman so she swore to never give away her heart again. I found this to be a bit confusing at first, it was interesting but not very modern and felt like it could’ve been an original folklore story.
- Olivia’s Table By: Alyssa Wong (Chinese)
I loved this one! It had ghosts and causal non-hetersexual relationships which are great, especially in something based on mythology and folklore. I actually really liked this one and the relationship between the ghosts and the humans. It was interesting to see all the history behind the ghost’s lives. I also really liked the fact that this was based on Chinese-Americans because I don’t see a lot of that in media specifically about Asian culture and I think it’s really good to see as someone who is also half-asian living in a western country.
It’s about a girl whose mother used to cook food for the annual Ghost Festival and now it’s her job to keep it going. She shows some compassion to an often forgotten ghost and she has a bit of a flashback storyline with a female ghost who saved her from drowning as a kid, even though it cost her something major and at the end of the story she reunites with that ghost.
- Steel Skin By: Lori M. Lee (Hmong)
This kind of confused me a bit because it was very sci-fi and futuristic and I wouldn’t have known it was inspired by folklore or mythology at first because it was way more futuristic. But in hindsight I know that it could’ve been inspired by themes or less directly and I also don’t know much about the material this was based on. I really liked the story and I thought this made it stand out a lot more amongst the other retellings, I also really liked the themes of trying to figure out your own identity in hard times which is something that lots of young people can relate to these days.
It was about a girl living in a dystopian future where there was a recall of AI bots because they started to get too intelligent and rebelled against the humans. This girl’s mother was killed in this recall and they had to move. Ever since her dad has been different and distant and she’s trying to figure out what’s changed, when he’s away she starts to think that her dad is actually a robot because he’s so emotionally distant. Later she and her friend follow her dad to his secret Work location and eventually find out that she is secretly a robot but she was programmed to think she was a human.
She realized that the person who was ‘her father’ was actually just an engineer who was watching her, and she was sent back because she was having aggressive tendencies and violent outbursts. But those were because they gave her traumatic memories in her programming and her response made them think she was dangerous. Her friend also found out but even when he knew he still helped her get away in the end.
- Still Star-Crossed By: Sona Charaiotra (Punjabi)
I didn’t really like this one, probably just because I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the source material or the more well known rendition of the characters, so to me it just seemed a bit odd.
This story follows a teenage girl who meets this guy when she’s at a party, he keeps following her and seeing her in other places but she always leaves before anything can happen even though she also kind of wants to see him. Eventually after talking to her mother she realizes that the guy resembles a character from a cultural love story in which the girl has to choose before her love interest and her family, and she chooses her family but loses them both. Her mother is saying that the girl was in a difficult position and the guy died in a tragic way, and she later realizes that the guy who keeps following her is the guy from the story reincarnated and that her mother was one of the original characters. It’s a story about reincarnation with a bit of karma but to me at first it just seemed a little off.
Because the main character’s big difference from her mother is that she doesn’t have the same spark or need for attention and partying, so she’s not as into certain things as her mother before her. But I don’t really see that as karma or a punishment, I just see it as a difference, which is why that part didn’t really work for me.
And without already knowing the story, the guy just following her around and showing up where she was all the time was actually really creepy and scary in a more modern context. I would be really scared if a guy I’d never met before was insisting he knew me and following me around, I think it would just be scary and not romantic. But that’s my opinion without any prior knowledge.
- The Counting of Vermillion Beads By: Aliette De Bodard (Vietnamese)
This story was alright but it didn’t really stand out much from the others. I think it showed a really good relationship between the sisters.
It’s about two sisters who were taken away from their families to do census for the royals, they had a decent life there but they could never leave or go back to their families. The older sister does everything she can to escape, jumping into the wall and first turning into a bird and then a tree and eventually escaping through the wall. But later when the younger sister is about to be promoted the older sister comes back and says that they can’t go back because they’re too different from their family now.
- The Land of the Morning Calm By: E. C. Myers (Korean)
I loved this one! It was really sad but also a very interesting and modern retelling.
This follows a girl whose mother died and her family is still recovering, they all used to play an online role playing game called The Land of the Morning Calm based on korean legends, but it’s connected to her death so they never played it again. When she finds out that the game is going to be shut down she downloads and plays it again. But while playing she finds her mother’s old character and realizes that her mother’s soul is somehow still tied to her character in game, but since the game was about to be shut down she wanted her mother to be safe so she helped her get to a place where she could be transferred over to a new private server and live on in the game.
But to do this she had to sacrifice an object from the real world that was the center of her memories of her mother and that she always wore on her necklace, a pearl from the cosplay of her game character she was wearing before she died. She succeeds but she also gets sucked into the game and doesn’t know how to get back to the real world. Eventually she wakes up and finds out that she was in a coma while she was in the game.
I loved this story and the general concept, it’s something that’s been explored a lot in various stories and media especially since there’s so many games out nowadays. I really liked this one in particular because it highlighted the personal connection between the two characters.
- The Smile By: Aisha Saeed (South Asian)
I think this story was also very well done, it’s a retelling in which a prince and one of his courtaneses have an affair and the King finds out. But it kind of turns the story on it’s head. The author wrote that they didn’t see how that relationship could be consensual since he was very clearly in a position of power and control over her so this story highlights that. I think it has a really important message for the modern day and reflects the time period it was set in.
Throughout the story the main character does everything her prince boyfriend told her to but he would still get mad at her, even when she did exactly what he told her to. Throughout the story he uses her to increasingly extreme extents and she realizes that while she has a good life at the palace she also doesn’t have any freedom, since she never has a choice in her relationship and can’t make her own decisions. In the end she realizes that belonging to someone is not the same as being in love with them and escapes with the help of her friend.
This story has great messages about how all relationships no matter how good they might seem can be unbalanced and unhealthy, but it also shows major themes of friendship between women and how the men in this story undermine them.
- Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers By: Preeti Chhibber (Gujarati)
This is a very interesting one and another in which I was pretty unfamiliar with the original stories so my interpretation is solely based on what I read.
This story follows three girls on Navratri, while dancing they encounter a teenage boy who has always been extremely mean and rude to them without any remorse, apologies, or hesitation. So they decide to get revenge on him but they might’ve gone a bit overboard. In the end he apologizes and everything is fine because it was kind of even between them.
There’s a message here about good people doing bad things versus just being bad people, but honestly I totally think he got what was coming because especially when boys treat girls terribly and don’t get any consequences it makes me mad, because it encourages them to grow up and continue to treat women badly their entire life.
There was also another story aspect that was told throughout this which was the story of some of the gods and a legendary fight. This story overall had a pretty femminist vibe, which I love to see in books and everywhere really. I really liked to see that even when getting back at him the girls still felt bad and talked to him afterwards.
- Nothing Into All By: Renee Ahdieh (Korean)
This was an interesting one mainly because of its magic. It follows two siblings with an interesting dynamic, they often go to try and find magic goblins who would solve their problems. One day the girl accidentally stumbles upon them and is given one of their magical clubs, along with a chant that she could use to turn things into gold. But that night her brother stole the club and tried to use it for what he thought would be best, but since it wasn’t gifted to him it didn’t work. When the sister couldn’t find him she immediately knew what had happened and rushed to get him back, which she eventually used her magic on.
This story was really well done, it showed lots of their backstory so you could see why characters acted as they did and how they felt towards each other. It was a really cool dynamic and I like how it was explored. The magic was also pretty cool.
- Spear Carrier By: Rahul Kanakia (South Asian)
This one was very interesting because the main character was not even the one involved in the main story that this was based on, he was just a random background character who ended up there. In one folklore story there was a battle with like 5 million people and only about 12 people survived, and this story explores who they were, where they came from and how they felt about it. Not the main characters of that story but just the background warriors.
The main character from America was approached with an opportunity to die for something meaningful, so he took it. But he was just teleported to a random battlefield, not told what was going on and expected to fight alongside an army of random people, aliens, monsters and species from many different worlds and times.
But the main character refused to fight without knowing what was going on, and asked the ‘main characters’ of the actual overarching story what was happening and why were they fighting but since they could’ve just lied to him to get him to do what they wanted he wasn’t convinced and ended up going back home.
This was a very interesting concept and I think it’s a great exploration of the very modern trope of young people being transported to some other world and having to fight for a greater good, because in this case the character took that opportunity but didn’t see it through in the end. This is also probably part of the story that was often overlooked so a greater focus on the random people fighting this battle was very cool to see.
- Code of Honor By: Melissa de la Cruz (Filipino)
This one was kind of weird, because the main character was kind of like a vampire type creature that could transform and eat animals. Her code of honor was not to eat people, and when she ended up in New York she was dealing with some high school drama and the mean girl invited her to come hang out, where she realized that there are others like her there. And in the end, she joins their coven. It was very interesting and I liked the modern high school drama aspects.
- Bullet, Butterfly By: Else Chapman (Chinese)
This one is interesting because it takes a star-crossed lovers type story and keeps some major aspects but changes the setting and many other details.
It’s set in a war-plagued world and the main character is a boy who isn’t fighting in the war only because he’s sick. He has the opportunity to sneak into where the girls work making weapons. There he meets a girl and falls in love with her but when he gets better he has to go back to fighting and he’s also having an arranged marriage to a different girl. So after he reveals his real identity (he had still been pretending to be a girl) she runs away, but later they meet and decide that it doesn’t really matter. But when she finds out that he’s leaving and marrying someone else, she dies of heartbreak/sickness and he is devastated.
I liked the aspects of boys pretending to be girls and having the world be full of war because war is a big part of history, current day life in some places and probably the future too. So it was really interesting to see it used like this here.
- Daughter of the Sun By: Shveta Thakrar (South Asian)
This one was alright, it follows a girl who was born with a heart that shines like the sun so she had to hide away. But eventually she finds a man who mirrors her and she stops him from drowning, even though he was a god stuck in a mortal form and was planning on drowning. They get together for a year but when he’s supposed to die she does everything she can to get him to stay, and eventually when using a boon she uses a loophole to get him to be able to stay if he wants to and they end up together in a happy ending.
This story has an interesting message about trust in relationships and dynamics. After she saved him the first time he forgot who he was and what he was doing, she never told him even though she should’ve. In the end she made sure he knew even though it could change how he saw her, but in a healthy relationship she should’ve told him right away and not made decisions selfishly and for him. Overall this story had some interesting messages but wasn’t astounding.
- The Crimson Cloak By: Cindy Pon (Chinese)
This was another one that I loved mainly because of the writing style and perspective because it is one of the characters retelling her own story and correcting how other people were telling it. I really liked the feminist energy from the main character because I think this story is usually told from the man’s perspective so she came in and fixed all the misconceptions in it.
The main character is a goddess and the youngest of her sisters who could fly with her cloak and paint the sky different colours during dawn and sunsets. She falls in love with a mortal man after a while but there’s a bit of a miscommunication because she assumes that she’d need to leave him when he started talking about marriage because she couldn’t do something like that. But his friend ox was also magical and was able to fly up to talk with her and convince her to stay. So they got married, a house and had kids together, although she still spent a lot of time in heaven and couldn’t always be with mortals.
- Eyes like Candlelight By: Julie Kagawa (Japanese)
This one was very interesting, it follows a boy named Takeo who helped a fox creature when he was a boy and it was a kitsune which has magical powers and is more like a mythical creature. Years later when his village is in danger because they can’t pay the rice tax or even have enough food for themselves due to drought. He went to try to find help and he met the kitsune again who agreed to help them if he came back the next day, but the help didn’t arrive in time and Takeo was killed. The kitsune who loved him got revenge on the tax collectors. I liked this one but it also didn’t stand out as much as some of the other ones.
- Carp, Calculus, and the Leap of Faith By: Ellen Oh (Korean)
I really liked this one because it really seemed like a real story and was relatable and funny to read.
This follows a young adult who is being forced by her mother to go into pre-med school and become a doctor even though she hates it, is bad at it and wants to stop more than anything. But she’s never been able to tell her mom this because she’s scared of disappointing her. When she approaches her father with this problem, he tells her their family history story of her ancestors turning into carp in a lake to get away from pirates trying to kill them. That’s why they never eat carp and he helps her finally have that hard conversation with her mother.
Overall this was a very personal and funny story which I really loved reading and thought it was good in comparison to some of the more serious ones in here to end the book on a lighter note.