Burning Roses, S.L. Huang (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-25076-399-0, $21.99, 160pp, hc) September 2020.
Every talent incubator is bound to have a few misfires. Even Pixar has made a few less-than-perfect movies. But I was still disappointed to read S.L. Huang’s Burning Roses, a novella in the Tor.com Publishing line, which has produced work like Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh and The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. Burning Roses is a minor mess. It relies too much on well-known fairy tales and does not work hard enough on its own character- and worldbuilding. Its diversity is very welcome, but its execution is lacking.
The frame story of Burning Roses has to do with Rosa and Hou Yi, two middle-aged women who have deadly abilities and sad pasts. They roam the countryside, trying to keep it safe from “sunbirds,” who have fiery powers like dragons – but are not dragons, as dragons also exist in this world. So do “grundwirgen,” sentient animals, the rules of which aren’t too clear. The text inside this frame is Rosa telling her backstory to Hou Yi. Her life is one fairy tale after another: she is Red Riding Hood whose grandmother is eaten; she rescues Goldilocks by slaying the three bears; she must withstand the sarcasm and watchful eye of Goldie’s companion, Puss in Boots; her lover is Beauty promised to the Beast. This would be cool and fun, except that the queer and diverse twists S.L. Huang implements don’t really add anything to the discourse around fairy tales. These recognizable stories have just been altered a little bit and strung together, not used to subvert or reimagine anything in particular.
Hou Yi is a figure from Chinese fairy tales who may be less familiar to Western readers. Burning Roses focuses primarily on Rosa, but includes a climactic showdown between Hou Yi and her son, Feng Meng, a villainous figure. I cannot speak to how well Huang has integrated or reworked the Chinese fairy tales in this book, whether imaginatively or less so, but I suspect that intertwining these two traditions might have been more successful if Huang had given her characters more to do than battle and talk to each other, or had given any of these tales more room to develop new, 21st-century truths.
Rosa and Hou Yi are both burdened by unhappy pasts having to do with lovers and children, and often the drama of this baggage sounds like a single, blaring note, so loud that more subtle emotional moves become inaudible. “She could not rail against a destiny she had inflicted upon herself,” Huang narrates, melodramatically. Later, when Hou Yi finally tells her own tale:
Grief saturated Hou Yi’s words as the rushing of the surf filled their ears and the salt breeze their senses. Rosa tried to stretch her mind to imagine such a betrayal from her own child, but her mind blanked against the monstrousness of it.
Since the language in all the Tor.com Publishing novellas I’ve read has been innovative and confident, Huang’s overuse of abstract emotions, rather than evoking those emotions through action and reaction, felt rudimentary and out of place. She uses “some” modifiers frequently (some, something, somehow), always a sign of an unready draft. “Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring – not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.” This is mundane, clichéd language, and it adequately communicates the lack of imagination with which Huang has assembled the rest of the novella.
Both Rosa and Hou Yi are queer, older women, and the only white character in the book seems to be Goldie. Of course I am pleased that Huang has written so passionately about queer women of color, and I applaud Tor.com for upping the quotient of diversity in fantasy literature, but the quality of a diverse book matters too. Because of its language, its underdeveloped characters, and its uninteresting importation of Western fairy tales into a new but relatively unspecific story, Burning Roses just isn’t that good.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.
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