Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, by Eugie Foster

Eugie Foster is a Chinese-American writer; she was born in the Midwest (Urbana, adiposity IL) but escaped down south (Atlanta) and refuses to return. (After this winter, I can see why.) She writes columns on how to write for YAs, a pursuit I applaud, and is one of the directors of Dragon*Con. She’s also the managing editor of a magazine called The Fix. Her fiction (short stories) has appeared in online magazines, print anthologies by various editors, podcasts, and now a collection from Norilana Books, published this year. The Wikipedia page has a good collection of her works available online legitimately, but of course I’m going to encourage you to buy the book.

This collection of twelve stories spans a little over two hundred pages, and includes retellings of folk tales from a handful of east Asian countries, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. The titles are:

“Daughter of Bótù”
“The Tiger Fortune Princess”
“A Thread of Silk”
“The Snow Woman’s Daughter”
“The Tanuki-Kettle”
“Honor is a Game Mortals Play”
“The Raven’s Brocade”
“Shim Chung the Lotus Queen”
“The Tears of My Mother, the Shell of My Father”
“Year of the Fox”
“The Archer of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon”
“Returning My Sister’s Face”

They were all originally published in various places, including Heroes in Training, an anthology published by DAW Books in 2007; So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction, an anthology published by Haworth Press in 2007; many different magazines, and various websites. This, I believe, is her first full-length collection.

The title story, and the last one in the book, is probably the meatiest; it’s based on a common Japanese ghost story that apparently has been made into numerous plays and movies. Of course, I’d never heard of it before, not being very familiar with Japanese literature, folk tales, plays, or cinema, but it’s still rather frightening. In the story, a woman (Oiwa) is accused of adultery and killed, and her brother must restore her lost honor. Ms. Foster tells the story from the brother’s point of view, and it featured murder, suicide, lies, an awful scene of discovery, and samurai. It’s a really arresting story, and probably worth the price of the entire collection.

“A Thread of Silk” is the other anchor story in the collection; it’s based on the historical tale of Taira no Masakado, and is actually frightening as well. It’s got the familar elements of revenge and family honor, as well as a horrific sort of immortality. It’s centered on the cousin and sister of the main two involved in the story, and I thought it was a brilliant piece of work, even without knowing the source material. For the slightly more familiar feel, two stories feature Yuki-Onna, the Snow Woman, who is similar to the western Snow Queen. A couple stories also feature rather Cupid-and-Psyche-like setups, with trust as the main factor, and there are a lot of animals-turned-human who fall in love with humans.

“Shim Chung the Lotus Queen” is the story that’s absolutely of Korean origin (Ms. Foster wrote blurbs to go after each story), and I quite enjoyed the filial-virtue-brings-great-rewards story, which is apparently a trait of much Korean folklore. One thing that marked the differences in the stories was the Buddhist stories versus the Shinto or non-religious stories. More explicitly Buddhist stories emphasized that calmness and lack of desire as the way to eternal reward, and the Shinto or non-religious stories generally emphasized family honor and sometimes even revenge. Obviously sometimes the traits were combined, such as in “The Tears of my Mother, the Shell of My Father,” where a boy who is in training to be a priest must meditate to save the honor of his family; or “Year of the Fox,” where one character is concerned with renouncing her cravings and the other is trying to save the family honor.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. I’m not familiar with very many East Asian folk or fairy tales, and this was a great introduction, I thought. Ms. Foster’s comments explaining her inspiration were also quite helpful, and it’s definitely convinced me that not only should more authors write in these settings, but that I should search out some of the original tales myself. I’d recommend it to nearly everyone; again, while one can get a taste for Ms. Foster’s work by those available online, I found that the collection was very well arranged and had the commentary. The cover’s pretty neat, too. 5/5 stars.

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