Strange Beasts of China
by Yan Ge
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 13 Jul 2021 | Archive Date 27 Oct 2021
Melville House Publishing, Melville House
"Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror of 2021"—The Washington Post
From one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Chinese literature, an uncanny and playful novel that blurs the line between human and beast…
In the fictional Chinese city of Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist is commissioned to uncover the stories of its fabled beasts. These creatures live alongside humans in near-inconspicuousness—save their greenish skin, serrated earlobes, and strange birthmarks.
Aided by her elusive former professor and his enigmatic assistant, our narrator sets off to document each beast, and is slowly drawn deeper into a mystery that threatens her very sense of self.
Part detective story, part metaphysical enquiry, Strange Beasts of China engages existential questions of identity, humanity, love and morality with whimsy and stylistic verve.
“I loved the novel—charged with melancholy surrealism, its preoccupations with being and loneliness are both timeless and all too timely. The translation by Jeremy Tiang is especially brilliant and engaging.” —Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti
“A thought-provoking read on its own merit, the book takes on added significance given that it is an early work by Yan, whose talent is clear, raw and electrifying.” —Post Magazine
"Playful and darkly subtle . . . The world shown here is full of chaos and vulnerability . . . You could choose to despair at this, or take hope that Yan Ge cares enough to write tenderly about it." —The Irish Times
“If Yan’s book was simply a selection of surreal vignettes centered around the beasts, a la Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, it would likely be compelling enough . . . The novel as a whole abounds with moments where vivid imagery coincides with an ever-present sense of danger.” —tor.com
“What appears to be a postmodern series of fantastic fables morphs into something more unexpected, expertly crafted by Yan Ge: an obscure mediation on the wildness of everyday existence, an evocative, bizarre consideration of the fragile boundaries between the self and the world beyond.” —The Skinny
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 41 members
Such a unique story! If you are wanting to read more books from Asian authors, then I highly recommend this.
It starts off slow and kind of dense, but once the action begins, it's hard to resist the story as it drives forward. It reads as a true epic, one that makes you feel the world really has been reshaped as you read it. Would recommend.
In the fictional modern industrialist Chinese city of Yong’an, an unnamed protagonist hangs out and drinks too much at the Dolphin Bar, lamenting her the loss of her former studies as a cryptozoologist, which she quit because of her professor. She's still fascinated with the strange beasts that live alongside humans and tracks down each breed in turn at the behest of her editor, chronicling her encounters and discoveries for newspaper publication. Structured as a bestiary, each chapter focuses on one beast at a time. To modern eyes, the collection reads like a series of loosely connected, chronologically-ordered short stories. Typically, each chapter begin with a general description of the beast in question, followed by the narrator's anecdotal and often personal experiences, and ends with a reveal, sometimes a twist about what the beast is really like. But it's the protagonist that holds the book together, and as the stories proceed, her story gains weight as she finds clues to her own past. Beasts walk among the humans, but most have not successfully intermingled into society, preferring to stay with their own kind. Some are so rare they've never been seen, but all are spectacles of human amusement. Female sorrowful beasts are beautiful creatures, so sought after by rich elites who pay the government large sums of money for a regulated marriage license. The short and ugly Impasse beasts happily work long hours and hard labor so they can afford to buy almost-rotten food, considering themselves lucky because they have enough to eat. The prose is straightforward, and the dispassionate description of the fantastic beasts is always followed by the phrase, "other than that, they were just like human beings." The narrator's deceased mother imparts her wisdom often, sometimes multiple times each chapter, including, "My mother used to tell me, 'You can't be sure that beasts aren't people, or that people aren't just another type of beast'" or "My mother used to say: never cry, or your tears will water your sorrow and it'll grow." The tone is quiet, dark, almost noir. The protagonist is a young and reckless soul, frequenting the same bar to get drunk where she's mostly left alone. Over the course of the book, she becomes more and more personally invested in her work. She's beat up in dark alleyways; she loses people; and she almost loses herself. But the book is also surreal and dreamlike, from the physical differences of the beasts—gills and scales and elongated necks—to the twists and turns of who is exploiting whom. It's all so unexpected, and I love reading something I can't predict. All great scifi and fantasy uses genre to turn a lens back on ourselves, and this is a skillful exploration of complex ideas about identity and who we consider to be different from ourselves. But it's not a simple as you might think. Many of the beasts are violent or immoral, and it's not as clear cut whether the fear and ostracism is warranted. Even the noble beasts intentions are misunderstood or secretly horrifying, which forces the reader to evaluate the worst aspects of our own humanity. Although I'm sure I'm missing a great deal of the subtleties of modern-day China, the critique also does not shy away from social inequality, environmental and biological destruction, economic disparities, and government control. And the public in the book has no sense of place or history, and their collective memory loses hold of recent atrocities. Something about the collection seems unpolished or unfinished, including a few grammatical errors. Perhaps its the translation, or perhaps the distant perspective or the lack of inner thoughts and character motivations. But even so, The Strange Beasts of China is something special, romantic and melancholy, disquieting and rebellious, that facilitates late night readings and lingering thoughts well past the epilogue. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a new reading experience! Thanks to Netgalley and Melville House Publishing for a free copy in exchange for an honest review!