Review: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” edited by Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman

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Title: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

Editors: Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

Publisher: Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins

Publication Date: June 26, 2018

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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(Digital ARC graciously provided by publisher via Edelweiss)

As a child, I learned about the myths and lore of both my own country and peoples alongside those from foreign lands. I’ve read about Hercules and Bernardo Carpio, Helen of Troy and Malakas at Maganda at school, but somehow, whenever I browse through the shelves of my favorite local bookstore, there are so few books about the latter – books with characters with similar names to mine, characters who physically resemble my black hair and brown eyes and brown skin.

It was a sad state.

Even now, at a time when authors and publishers seriously take into account diversity in their works and books, there’s still a big gap. So, you can just imagine how happy I was when I heard that Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, both from #WeNeedDiverseBooks, were coming out with a collection of short stories based on South, East and Southeast Asian myths and folklore.

Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings. These are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renee Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place. From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Goodreads

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings successfully introduces narratives from countries that don’t get much mention in mainstream literature. Each author brings forth their own interpretations of south, east and southeast asian myths, legends and folklore. From contemporary to sci-fi to fantasy and paranormal – the authors versions were creatively and widely varied. There’s something for everyone! Also, there are author notes at the end of each story that gives readers a bit of background about the myths and lore the short story was based on, so if you’d want to find out more about their origins you could easily search for it.

It was tough to pick which stories I loved the most, but narrowing it down, I’d have to say Roshani Chokshi’s “Forbidden Fruit”, E.C. Myers’ “The Land of the Morning Calm” and Aisha Saeed’s “The Smile” were my favorites among the 15 short stories. All of them were great though, so I’ll try to review each story as well as I could.

🍂 Forbidden Fruit – Roshani Chokshi | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: Filipino

It was an ill-fated thing to claim that a heart is safe. Hearts are rebellious. The moment they feel trapped, they will strain against their bindings.

Forbidden Fruit is based on one of the many myths a Maria Makiling, the goddess guarding Mount Makiling in the Philippines. Maria, or Dayang (meaning princess) as she is fondly called by her father, falls in love with the mortal Bulan. But as is the case with a goddess and a mortal falling in love, it doesn’t end well.

This was beautifully written and was an apt opener for this collection of short stories. Chokshi’s prose is lyrical and captivating, and it just set the right tone for this tragic story.

🍂 Olivia’s Table – Alyssa Wong | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: Chinese

“If you honor everything I’ve taught you, then I promise that I will never leave you.”

Olivia’s Table centers around Olivia who takes on her mother’s role of feeding the dead during The Hungry Ghost Festival or Yu Lan.

This one was incredibly touching. It’s a story about grief – of letting go and moving on. I found so many allusions in the story, putting in parallel Olivia’s grief to the freeing of the ghosts stuck in the old Arizona town where it the story is set.

🍂 Steel Skin – Lori M. Lee | ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: Hmong

For eleven glorious months, she had been a daughter. A girl. A friend. And now that she knew the truth, who would she decide to be?

Yer is the star of this short story which is set, seemingly, in a future where androids have rebelled. Her mother is killed during the android recall, the government’s answer to the android rebellion. Together, Yer and her father managed to escape to a remote town far from the city where they used to live.

This one is very sci-fi. It was a fun read even though I kind of suspected how it will end. I breezed through it, enjoyed reading it but, unlike the first two stories, didn’t quite love it.

🍂 Still Star-Crossed – Sona Charaipotra | ⭐️⭐️

Origin: Punjabi

“You don’t know hot to choose until you’re right there, on the precipice, giving away your everything for something that may be real or may be a shadow, a ghost you’re chasing.”

Based on the Punjabi folktale of Mirza and Sahiba, Still Star-Crossed is one of the few stories in this collection that I didn’t quite like. It was beautifully and hauntingly written, but the elements used in the story – the young man following the female protagonist, oddly showing up wherever she goes – just didn’t work for me. It was, honestly, disturbing.

🍂 The Counting of Vermillion Beads – Aliette De Bodard | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: Vietnamese

“We can’t possibly leave…,” Cam starts slowly, desperately.

 “Can’t we?” She holds out a hand, her eyes dark and shadowed.

The Counting of Vermillion Beads was based on the Vietnamese folktale Tám Cám, whose storyline is similar to the more popular and familiar Cinderella. But the author turned this around, wanting to write about sisters who “stuck together in spite of the odds” and it totally worked.

I loved the way the author wrote the two sisters, the contrasts between them. Tám is free-spirited while Cám is duty-bound but not matter their differences, their unconditional love for one another prevails in the end.

🍂 The Land of the Morning Calm – E.C. Myers | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: Korean

..but whether I recall every detail or not, those moments are part of me. They made me who I am and will always influence who I become.

This was easily one of my favorites in this anthology. It made me laugh and cry, especially through the last parts of it.

With elements of a paranormal story, The Land of the Morning Calm is a deeply moving story about grief and acceptance. I loved every bit of this story – Myers’ use of an MMO game, one that has meant so much for the main character’s parents, to show a historical Korea, the extended family structure very common to Asians. Of course, the last part killed me, when Sunny, in a way, guided her mother to the gates of the Underworld.

🍂 The Smile – Aisha Saeed | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: South Asian

The prince always said I belonged to him. I had thought this word protected me and kept me safe, but now I understood. Belonging meant he could place me wherever he liked, whether in his bed or in this dank tower. Belonging is not love. It never was.

The Smile tells the story of a young, talented dancer plucked from family by a jealous, controlling prince. She serves the prince the best she can becoming his confidante and lover. But when an important merchant provokes his jealousy, the prince banishes her in a tower to be buried alive.

In her author’s note, Aisha Saeed expressed that she wanted to give the original story a different ending in her re-telling. She questioned how a girl made into a courtesan could have an equal and consensual relationship with a prince. The new ending she gave this story totally worked for me. The Smile was an incredibly powerful and feminist story, one that I would re-read over and over again.

🍂 Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers – Peeti Chhibber | ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Origin: Gujarati

Let the gods have their battles of good and evil. We were here to dance.

This was really cute, but I think it lacked the substance I found in the previous short stories. Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers is basically a story about good versus evil. I like the alternating narration as it gave me more insight into who the goddess Durga is, while the by Jaya, the story’s main character, kept it light and fun.

🍂 Nothing into All – Renée Ahdieh | ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Origin: Korean

“I know this not my fault. It is not my responsibility to make amends for my brother. It is Chun’s fault he has become a thief. But please let him have the chance to make it right. Give him the chance to become a great man.”

Based on the Korean fairy tale Goblin Treasure, Renée Ahdieh’s contribution to this collection tackles good and evil, and how it could exist in the same person. She used brother and sister Chun and Charan to illustrate her point.

This was a signature Ahdieh story. The lyricism so typical in her longer novels was very much present in this short story set in a fantastical Korea. She focused on Chun and Charan here – the siblings’ relationship to one another, Charan’s selflessness and love for her mischievious brother. I enjoyed reading this, but did not quite love it as much.

🍂 Spear Carrier – Rahul Kanakia | ⭐️

Origin: South Asian

When I agreed to his offer, it was because I had thought I’d be a hero. But a hero wouldn’t be so lonely and so afraid. A hero wouldn’t shout for help, and then, hearing only silence, go back to his trench and cry.

I’ll admit to quitting on this entry halfway through the story. It was long and it meandered, the narrator of the story going on a tangent for most parts of the half I read. There were lovely quotable lines though, like the one I picked, but, personally, it didn’t give me enough reason to finish reading the story.

🍂 Code of Honor – Melissa de la Cruz | ⭐️⭐️

Origin: Filipino

I had been lost to the bloodline for years, but now I was home.

I really wanted to love, or at the very least, like this story, but I just can’t. Aswangs (or vampire witches, but that’s too light a term for these monsters) starred in many of my nightmares (blame the horror flicks I watched just before bedtime). They’re easily one of the scariest entities in Filipino folklore, so I had high expectations for this short story. I felt like Melissa de la Cruz could have done so much better instead of this short story which could easily be inserted into any of her Blue Blood novels.

🍂 Bullet, Butterfly – Elsie Chapman | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Origin: Chinese

“That’s why we chose it, I suppose. Because what do either of those things – freedom, love – matter when it comes to this war, for us here as its soldiers? They don’t, at all.”

Again, another one of the best stories in this anthology. Set in a war-torn China, Bullet Butterfly is a tragic story about two young lovers kept apart by their duty to their land. Forbidden love is a troupe that has been used over and over again, but Elsie Chapman managed to make her re-telling fresh and original. (Also, that ending is just gorgeous!)

🍂 Daughter of the Sun – Shveta Thakrar | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Origin: South Asian

Hers, they promised, was a heart meant to be shared with one who could not only bear her light but would even reflect it back at her.

Daughter of the Sun was inspired by two South Asian stories from the Mahabharata – Savitri and Satyavan, and Ganga and Shantanu. I loved this story’s female MC. She knows her own mind and sticks to her guns. She cleverly tricks Rambha, the nymph tasked with delivering Satyavan to his father Chandra, the lunar lord, making her extend boy’s stay with Savitri and, ultimately, restoring his life at the end of the story.

🍂 The Crimson Cloak – Cindy Pon | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Origin: Chinese

Despite how the legend goes, the truth of the matter is, Dear Reader, I saw him first.

I don’t know why this re-telling reminded me of Jane Eyre. Could be the “dear reader” part, but, whatever, I love that it addresses the reader directly. It made me feel more a part of the story.

This was one of the happier tales in this collection. A re-telling of the Chinese folktale The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, The Crimson Cloak gave voice to the weaver girl Hongyun, letting her tell her own story in her own way.

🍂 Eyes Like Candlelight – Julie Kagawa | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Origin: Japanese

Gazing into the eyes of a girl and wishing that, be it illusion or fantasy, he would never wake, and the night would go on forever.

Eyes Like Candlelight features one of Japan’s most prominent (and probably their favorite) mythical characters: the kitsune’s. This was bittersweet, and the gorgeous writing even made it more so. The ending was beautiful even though it was sad. This story was the perfect closer to the anthology.

Conclusion:

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is an important book. It takes a big step, bringing Asian stories to the fore. More so, getting Asian authors to tell their own stories. This book meant a lot to me as an Asian reader who has longed for her own stories to be told and to be represented properly in literature, TV shows and movie. I cannot urge all of you enough to pick up this book.

Final rating: 5/5

(The actual computed rating is 3.7 but this is a gem of a collection, so I’m giving it a perfect 5)

4 thoughts on “Review: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” edited by Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you for reading and dropping by, Marie! ❤️

      It’s definitely a great collection. It’s probably the first one where I liked most of the stories. I almost end up disliking most short stories I read in books similar to this one. So, this was also I (good) surprise for me. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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