Some thoughts on this book by Malaysian-Chinese author Zen Cho.
A) Issues of slavery and colonialism were touched and then dropped. I feel like it is because to delve deeper into consequences of these is to possibly make the book unsellable in Western countries? The question of why Z was adopted, but his parents were left as slaves? Sir Stephen is basically your White Saviour but we are expected to like and respect him because he loved Z, instead of hating him for depriving Z of the right to know his parents. That issue of children being stripped from their families as slaves is an important one and the question is asked but never explored.
b) I liked that Z and P were described as black and brown and references to their colour kept recurring. No possibility of white-washing should a movie be made. Also just the sheer gloriousness of having obvious Black and Brown characters in a book was awesome. Mak Genggang was DA BEST. She needs a book of her own. I’ll even take a novella. I like that finally Southeast Asia was featured prominently in a novel without orientalizing it.
c) British society is seen as unendingly racist towards Z and the actions they take to remove him are seen as exceeding any before, showing how their racism effects minorities who dare to succeed. I thought this was very good because it mirrors real life where they like you when you’re good, but only as long as you’re not better than them.
However, Z’s long suffering and continual politeness towards them seemed to me to smack of respectability politics. They treated him so badly but he is expected and does manage to maintain much equanimity throughout the book. It’s like saying that you shouldn’t fight fire with fire, and you will be rewarded for your good behaviour in the end? Wondering what you guys think about this?
d) What kind of a name is Prunella for a half-Indian girl? So insulted on her behalf. And it’s so strange even as a literary device, cos there’s nothing prune-like about her.
e) What was the point of the 7 stones if she only uses 3? I thought the number should mean something. In a good fantasy novel, numbers and proclamations have to lead up to something. Like there has to be a reason why she was given 7 and not 3? And that should have been built into the novel. We don’t know and are kinda asked to not care about the other 4? To me, that’s bad world-building.
Any other thoughts you guys have? I do think it is an important book in terms of representation, both for the author and characters. Although I think anything is better than Kevin Kwan, cos he is the shittiest of shittiest Chinese writers.
A follower said this: “This is a book written specifically by a potato-eating, Enid Blyton reading Malaysian Chinese who’s had the chance to study in the UK for her undergraduate. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it, just that I thought the book thoroughly reflected her sensibility in that Anglo-aspirational context. Basically don’t expect anything more than respectability politics”
I think this criticism is extremely valid and on point because this is basically written by a Chinese person wanting to be white or accepted by white people-as most Chinese people do.