“Her bigotry had destroyed everything good in her life, and still she couldn’t twist free of it.”
Burning Roses by S.L. Huang is an adult own-voices Queer Chinese fantasy novella about Rose (a.k.a. Red Riding Hood) and an archer named Hou Yi. Together they join forces to stop deadly sunbirds from ravaging the countryside. Their journey shall take them into a reckoning of terrible sacrifices, a mourning of mistakes, of choices, and also of family amid a quest for immortality.
Burning Roses is a story that beguiled me from beginning to end. The richness of the culture, the complexities of intertwining a multitude of fairy tales to share an overarching narrative, the flawed yet highly engaging characters that readers begin to root for, and the themes of nostalgia-ridden soul-searching—all of these facets had me captivated from its very first page, making it one of the best novellas that I have read in all of 2020.
The most intimidating aspect of this book is that it retells a large handful of familiar, mostly Western fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Beauty and the Beast, and Hou Yi (a Chinese fairy tale). They are all effortlessly interwoven to depict a perfectly paced and intricate narrative about what it means to get older and to try to find some semblance of peace within oneself. Older readers especially will feel a deeply intimate relation to these specific topics, more so if one has ever felt that life spiralled past them too quickly or was too full of regrets. Because of this the essence of the tale that unfolds is decidedly dark. It was so unexpected that when I became enveloped by its presence I was left feeling immensely surprised and wholeheartedly delighted by its progression.
When we think about fairy tales usually we are left with images of gallant heroes saving their significant others, or embarking on grand adventures full of splendour. While there is plenty of splendour and magic to go around within the universe of Burning Roses, the heroes are not what they seem to be. Envisioning good characters turning into morally grey or even villainous ones was some of the most creatively seductive elements of the reading experience.
Even with these glorious attributes, the bulk of Burning Roses’ beauty lies in its main characters. Hou Yi—a gender-bent depiction—and Rose were mesmerising in their struggles with their inner turmoil and their sapphic romance. The more acclimated we become with the introspective ghosts that haunt them and the purpose of their journey, the easier it becomes to wish for their happy ending. I felt a kinship with both individuals on a personal level as they reminded me so much of my parents, a point I am sure was intentional. The cerebral thematic elements of Burning Roses orbits the notion of parents living vicariously via their children, a notion that many Asian kids and kids of conservative communities will be able to correlate to, I am sure.
My only critique of the novella is in regard to the world-building. It is such an imaginative universe that sometimes feels rather underdeveloped. This may be due to the short length (approximately one-hundred-sixty pages) or it can be attributed to the concentration on character growth. Either way, I adored what was shared and craved for more concrete dimension to the settings and atmosphere of this fantastic realm.
Overall, I highly recommend Burning Roses to readers of multicultural fantasies and to fans of beautifully re-imagined fairy tale re-tellings alike.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Tordotcom.
Publication Date: September 2020
Genre: Chinese Literature, Fantasy
Page Count: 156
Content Warnings: Violence. Murder and death including animal shapeshifting killings. History of abuse. Child abandonment. Emotional guilt. Toxic relationships and family dynamics.
GoodReads: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang