I am a cat. I am a cat like anything. Keep stroking me. I came in here because I knew you were good at stroking. But put your knees together so I can sit properly, front paws under. That’s better. Now keep stroking, don’t forget to rub my ears, and I will purr and tell.
– “What the Cat Told Me”, Diana Wynne Jones
I have to admit, every time I read the title of this story to myself, the song “Who Loves the Sun” starts playing in my head – recently, it’s usually Zee Avi’s rendition of it. Ha. ANYWAY, “The Girl Who Loved the Sun” is one of my favourite stories from the Unexpected Magic collection. It was first published in a 1990 anthology, Heartache, and was collected in Minor Arcana in 1995 before the current reprint. It’s about a girl named Phega from a very long time ago, who loved the sun. She loved the sun so much that she wanted desperately for it to love her back. And so she observed that while the sun shines on everyone, it nurtures trees in a different, special sort of way. This made her think that to gain the sun’s love, she had to be a tree.
Turning into a tree came easily enough for Phega, although turning into a good tree-looking tree was a little harder. Still, every now and then she would plant her feet on the ground and set root. She kept observing, and noticed that the sun lingered in some areas more than others, and set root in those places. But still, her love seemed unrequited. Her parents had indulged in her fancies as a child but as she was coming of age, they began to worry about finding her a good husband. Knowing this, Phega became more desperate, and made a loud plea to the sun to love her.
The sun was surprised to know that her love was the reason she kept turning into trees. It loved all beings as they were meant to be, it told her, and she wasn’t truly a tree the way the other trees were. Knowing that her father was looking for potential suitors for her, Phega made a bargain with the sun – she would stop pretending to be a tree, and it would love her.
At first I thought that it meant that she would be human, but instead Phega was resolved to be a new kind of tree, something that’s wholly herself, so that she wouldn’t be pretending to be any of the others. She spent entire seasons studying trees and how they worked, becoming wiser in the ways of nature as she did so. But as her research was getting close to completion, her father’s chosen suitor for her was also on his way…
I really, really loved the fairytale-like quality of this story. The bargain, the transformations, the task Phega’s mother put to her suitor – they all felt right, like I was reading something true, something richer than the few pages that held the story. Because it is so fairytale-like, I’d read it and anticipate the fairytale ending, or at least something close to it. Heroes win at the end, after all. People get saved, and all that. But the hero of the story is Phega. And this is a Diana Wynne Jones story after all, and what DWJ does best is subvert fantasy/fairytale tropes. It didn’t quite end like I wanted, but at the end of it all, it still felt right, and true.
As the beginning of the story mentioned, Phega was hardly the first girl to turn into a tree. Her only distinction was that she wanted to, and wasn’t turned out of punishment from the gods, or to protect herself from the gods. Reading this made me think of people-turned-trees and tribes of them making up forests, and then it made me think of Blue from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle (and of course, her name is Sargent, which is a kind of cherry tree, isn’t it?) – I read “The Girl Who Loved the Sun” after reading The Raven King, and Cabeswater was already making me think of Hexwood, and now this, so in my head Blue is now some sort of descendent of Phega’s and Cabeswater is really Hexwood moved to the US and now I want to reread both the Raven Cycle AND Hexwood, except I can’t reread Hexwood yet, because it’s at #46 on my reread list and I’m still at #38.
I had originally listed “The Green Stone” as a 1996 story because that’s the year given in Unexpected Magic’; however, in Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature, it was listed as a 1988 story, first published in Gaslight and Ghosts. I only realised this when I was checking on the bibliography for “Mela Worms”, and have since rearranged my DWJ Re-Read list accordingly.
“The Green Stone” is a quest story, although like all DWJ stories, it doesn’t quite go the way quest stories usually do. Narrated by an unnamed Cleric about to go on her first quest, she runs about trying to make some sense of the chaos that is her party. The quest, she explains to one of the heroes (who refuses to give her his name), is a dangerous journey to find an artifact called the Green Stone. Anyway, despite zero help from her party members, she tries to record their names while they wait for the king to arrive and bless their quest. Among the last few people she encounters is a man who sarcastically gives her the name Basileus, and another man, Pelham, who claims to be a healer before rushing back to a post-mortem he was in the middle of.
The quest party began to calm down a little, and the cleric settles into her cart, when Basileus comes up, pulls off his hood to reveal a crown, and announces that he is the king. He adds that with the help of Pelham, he has retrieved the Green Stone himself, and that there is no longer any need for the quest.
As one would expect from a band of rowdy adventurers, this doesn’t sit well with the party members, and one thing led to another… causing them to steal the Green Stone they were supposed to get for the king, and run away, now expecting the king to round up a second group of adventurers to come after them.
Like many of the stories in Unexpected Magic, “The Green Stone” is very short, and straight-forward. The ending felt a little more unfinished than the rest, but only because so many characters were introduced in so very few pages, and I can easily imagine whole books, plural, being written about this group of adventurers. It’s kind of like Wild Robert in that sense. As a D&D player I really enjoy this take on quests/adventures, but I think those that don’t read a lot of traditional fantasy or play similar RPGs may find it not as compelling as DWJ’s other stories.
A note on my next read: as long as the next story in my DWJ rereads are short stories, I’ll go on as usual, but I’m also embarking on a Harry Potter reread (and am in the middle of a Raven Cycle reread!) soon so I may pause when I come to the next novel in the list. Because Castle in the Air needs my undivided attention, after all.
I think this is the first DWJ adult fiction that I’ve read – not counting Deep Secrets, since I read the expurgated version. “Mela Worms” is a funny (both in the “strange” and “haha” sense) story that is somehow still VERY DWJ-esque despite the sex. And there’s a lot of sex, since this story first appears in Arrows of Eros, an anthology specifically created to address sex in science fiction. I don’t think it was ever reprinted elsewhere.
Fingi is an officer on planet-leave as the ship she works on, Bon Quin, docks on the planet Reiss. Fingi hates Reiss because it’s human-made and she openly admits to being prejudiced against humans. I’m not sure about the true source of her prejudice, but I do understand why she would hate Reiss.
“They say the humans who built Reiss were pirates. I believe it. Their harbour dues made Yanni turn pale and they had already slapped on extra charges in all directions. Before I went upstairs to the interior, I had to pay a fee for the air I was going to breathe. There was a grille across the exit, and there I found I had to buy a permit to drink water and another, costing twice as much, to drink alcohol. Naturally I asked for an information cube then, thinking there must be some sights they didn’t charge you to see. Not a bit of it. The cube, costing as much as the other permits put together, informed me that I hadn’t yet paid my entry fee, and when I had, it kept flashing up: Penalty for littering 1,000 CR. Additional penalty for littering gutters up to ten years hard labour. After which it listed amusements in order of price.“
Reminds me of a certain tiny island. Ha. Anyway, with not much money left, Fingi goes to the zoo, which only costs 1.5CR and is basically the cheapest entertainment available to her. There, she wonders about why humans were so proud of their ancenstry as she looks at the caged apes, and is approached by four men of varying species. Assuming that they’re looking for free sex she rejects them, but they go after her, causing her to run in order to avoid a fight (which would get her fined). She ends up not just causing array, but also littering, by throwing one of the men into a gutter, and quickly heads back to her ship… to find out that her human captain Yanni has accepted over a hundred paying passengers (including the four men that had approached her!), and a cargo of mela worms that needed to be kept at a particular temperature at all times.
Fingi doesn’t know the exact temperature, since she’s only told that the room is too hot or too cold, nor does she know what mela worms were, until they escape from storage and wreak havoc on the libidos of everyone on board. (Yup, the worms create a scent that seem to make everyone want sex all the time, although it also seems to affect some species more than others.) So while the passengers and crew were engaged in orgies, Fingi is now desperate to collect and store the worms safely before the captain gives up on piloting altogether.
In the end, she gets help from the four men she had met at the zoo, which I think is very Diana Wynne Jonesian, both in the misunderstanding and needing to correct Fingi’s first impressions, and in the subversive take of the “chosen one” subplot. Perhaps it isn’t as great as her YA and children’s fiction, but it’s still funny and a good read, and so far my favourite in the Arrows of Eros anthology (I’ve only read 1/3 of the stories, though.)
Note: Following my original re-read list, “Mela Worms” would’ve been #35, but I just realised that I had listed “The Green Stone” as a 1996 story, when it was first published in 1988, meaning that I’ve accidentally skipped it. I’ve renumbered my original list, and will be doing “The Green Stone” next before moving on to “The Master”.
One of the first things I thought when I was reading this collection was, whether or not you enjoy it would depend on your expectations – which I guess would be true of many things, but especially so with Cyberpunk: Malaysia. That’s because it’s published by Buku Fixi, which mostly deals with pulp fiction and horror (with the occasional fantasy, and rarer SF) and also the fact that Malaysian authors (and readers!) may not be that familiar with the cyberpunk genre. I’ve read enough of Fixi’s anthologies to know not to be literal – not every story in the KL NOIR collections were actually noir, for example. So I began this book expecting some of the story to be not-really-cyberpunk, and perhaps not-really-“Science Fiction”. (This is because I know a lot of local readers that only consider hard-SF as SF.)
That said, I also had high expectations in the enjoyability of the book, because it is edited by Zen Cho, author of the collection Spirits Abroad (also published by Buku Fixi), and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. I’m definitely a fan of hers, and I think she totally delivers here, because I liked the flow of this collection – it’s a book that I can read from cover to cover in one go, which isn’t something I would say about most fiction anthologies.
My favourite stories would be “Underneath Her Tudung”, about a cyborg woman that many others assume to be an android; “Personal”, which poses an interesting question about a world where our entire existence could be summarised by a tab or a phone; and “The Twins”, which has robots possessed by Penunggu spirits. I also enjoyed “Attack of the Spambots” which is just pure fun, and “Codes” which makes for an excellent discussion on all the current restrictions set on Malay/Muslims in the country.
As a Malaysian SF fan I’m always looking out for speculative fiction with a Malaysian bent, and this anthology certainly satisfies me on that front. I even like the use of Manglish in a few of the stories, which I know annoyed some readers – the way I think of it, I can use English or Malay (or Japanese) completely, but most of the time it feels weird and like I’m trying too hard when I’m not mixing it all up, especially when talking to another Malaysian. Hence, I’ll never speak perfect English, or Malay, or any other language – some things are just better expressed in other languages, and I think in Malaysia, that’s exactly what we always do, mix it all up.
While there are one or two stories I could have done without, and I’m not as in love with this anthology as I was with Spirits Abroad (my favourite work of Malaysian fiction so far!), I do think it is a perfectly enjoyable collection of Malaysian SF, and among the better offerings of local fiction in English in the market.
I guess I should first say that I may be biased, since I’m friends with the editor. I may be, but I don’t think I am, because I also happen to know that Daphne is more picky than me when it comes to fiction, even if she is often kinder about local works.
First of all, this book has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen on a Malaysian book. It’s published by ZI Publications, whose books usually have nice covers, although they rarely print fiction.
This anthology collects retellings of Malaysian folklore. I’ve always wanted a collection of local folklore that isn’t in the form of a (usually badly illustrated) picture book, but a book of retellings is good enough. It’s inspired by other collections, particularly Adele Geras’ The Tower Room Trilogy and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, both of which reinterprets fairy tales, giving them new and different meanings.
Some of the stories in this collection, I’ve never heard of before, such Puteri Sa’adong, retold in “A Little Warm Death” and “The Proper Care of Princesses”, both by Karina Bahrin. And then there are the more familiar stories, like Batu Belah, Batu Bertangkup (about two children whose mother basically killed herself because they, uh, ate her food); Bawang Puteh, Bawang Merah (a Cinderella story of step-sisters, an evil stepmother and a magical dead mother, and a prince); Mahsuri (a semi-historical legend of a woman wrongly accused and punished for infidelity, cursing her village to years of strife); Si Tanggang (a story of a poor boy that makes it big and forgets his roots, causing his mother to curse him, turning him to stone); Puteri Gunung Ledang (a king searches for the rumoured beautiful and magical princess of Gunung Ledang, who makes unrealistic demands because she refuses to marry him) and Raja Bersiong (a king develops a taste for blood and starts needing it more and more, developing fangs as time goes by). And the Sang Kancil stories, which are trickster stories in a similar vein to Anansi or Brer Rabbit stories, except with a mousedeer as the trickster. Continue reading “Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, edited by Daphne Lee”
Anne Smith has mumps, and while at first she had tried to be valiant about being stuck in bed all day all the time, she is getting sick of being sick. And so she starts to complain about her food and about being left home alone (with the neighbour occasionally looking in on her), and when she finally settles down, she notices how her feet under her bedcovers made it look like a valley.
With that, Anne starts making up a tiny girl warrior by the name of Enna Hittims, who goes on brave and violent adventures with her two friends/sidekicks. Absorbed in her own make-believe world, Anne draws the characters and expands Enna Hittims’ story until her magic markers run out of ink. It was then that she realises that Enna Hittims and her friends had somehow come to life.
Believing that Anne is a giant, the three small heroes go on a quest to kill her – which, of course, scares Anne, who realises that she needs to get rid of her own creations.
When I started reading this, I thought of Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and how in Valerie Grove’s biography of Kaye Webb, it was described as a life-changing book given to Kaye when sick. This Goodreads review wonders if the story could be inspired by DWJ’s own life, with characters that run away with the story (I’ve read interviews in which DWJ said it had happened) as well as childhood illness and the boredom that results from it leading writers to bursts of creativity, or life-changing books. I do think it’s interesting to think about – childhood illness did lead me to discover Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the long periods of boredom caused by spending my school holidays in Malacca got me reading a lot. Other than that, Enna Hittims is a funny story that makes for a rather entertaining read, even if it doesn’t quite impress me as much as DWJ’s other work.
Originally published as a short story in The Methuen Book of Humorous Stories, Enna Hittim is now available in the edition I read (by Barrington Stoke) as well as in the collection Unexpected Magic.