By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
By Mia Tsai
Tachyon Publications, 2023
Meet Elle Jiang, the ignored middle child and descendent of the Chinese god of medicine. Destined to be a doctor but working as a mediocre magical calligrapher at a fairy temp agency. This being said, Elle has been challenging herself by secretly outfitting her client (and crush) Luc with high-powered glyphs.
Meanwhile, half-elf Luc—the agency’s top security expert—is keeping his own secret. He’s responsible for a curse laid from an old assignment and in order to heal the curse’s victims, Luc has no choice but to do his job (as perfectly as possible) and earn time off from his tyrannical boss.
Then Elle saves Luc’s life and so begins a dangerous collaboration—but neither can deny their chemistry. And for once, they’re thinking about their own happiness. But with Elle’s loyalty to her family and Luc bound by his true name, sacrifices will need to be made if they want to be free from duty.
“Bitter Medicine” is a love story between two individuals who have been around for a while—literally. Elle and Luc are both centuries old, which is common in fantasy stories when it comes to people with divine and or magical blood. But what I appreciated in this story is the fact that they’re both basically immortal and so there’s no major age gap, which you can sometimes get in fantasy romances (and it’s always the guy who’s at least a century older than the young female protagonist). And because they’ve both been around the block, the characters each have their own baggage, but they’re mature in how they handle things—you’d hope you’d learned if you were a few hundred years old.
Regular readers of this column will know I love a good fantasy story and so I’m no stranger to magic and the like. But Tsai introduces a magical system based on healing and language, which I hadn’t really read before and really enjoyed. I’m eager to read more about it as I’ve heard her next book will feature one of the secondary characters from this story.
The Star-Touched Queen
By Roshani Chokshi
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017
With a horoscope promising a marriage of Death and Destruction, 17-year-old Maya is cursed. While this has earned her only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom, she’s happy being left alone so she can follow more scholarly pursuits. But then her father arranges a political wedding for her to quiet outside rebellions. Needless to say, Maya’s not happy.
In the end, Maya marries Amar and becomes queen of Akaran. Surprisingly, she begins to find her power and voice in these roles and grow into herself. But Maya can’t ignore that there’s something strange about her new kingdom: there are thousands of locked doors wherever she goes, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories, rather than fruit. So Maya has to figure out who she can trust—especially since it looks like the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hang in the balance.
“Star-Touched Queen,” loosely based on the Greek mythology surrounding Hades and Persephone but set against Indian culture as a backdrop, is a story about a young woman coming into her own. When we first meet Maya, she may know who she is and what she wants from life, but when all of that is taken away, she has to learn to truly trust herself and her instincts if she wants to survive (not to mention save the day). Along the way she makes mistakes, one of which has truly dire consequences, but she owns them, learns from them and does her best to fix things. And that’s something readers of all ages can learn to do.
And while this story has a darker and more serious tone than Chokshi’s Pandavas series, there is still humor here. My favorite side character is Kamala, the flesh-eating demon horse who Maya meets and eventually befriends. Kamala’s offers to eat anyone who offends or wishes to harm Maya had me laughing out loud. We should all be so lucky to have such a ride-or-die (in this case, quite literally) companion.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea
By Axie Oh
Feiwel & Friends, 2022
In Mina’s homeland, people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair as deadly storms ravage the land, floods sweep away entire villages, and bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. To appease the Sea God, every year, a young woman is thrown into the sea to serve as his bride—all in the hopes that one day, his “true bride” will be chosen and put an end to all the suffering.
This year’s bride is Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in Mina’s village—and the beloved of Mina’s brother, Joon. So to save both her brother and Shim Cheong, Mina throws herself into the sea in Cheong’s place. Mina is taken to the Spirit Realm, where she finds the Sea God in an enchanted sleep, which he’s been in for 100 years. So Mina, with the help of a young man named Shin, and other demons, gods and spirits, sets out to wake the Sea God to end the killer storms. But not only is she working on a deadline since humans can’t live in the spirit realm for too long, there are also those who want to keep the Sea God sleeping.
Community is a big theme in this story—from Mina’s actions to help her village, to Shin protecting the Sea God to protect the Spirit Realm. “Girl Who Fell” is a feminist retelling of the Korean folktale “The Tale of Shim Cheong,” and features a strong protagonist in Mina. But one thing I really appreciated about her is that she knows she can’t do it on her own and welcomes the help of her new friends. So many fantasy adventure stories feature main characters who have to save the day all by themselves, but none of us can get through life on our own. And this story reminds us of the importance of being there for each other.