Singapore Shelf: Chinese fantasy of war and magic in Jade Fire Gold

June C. L. Tan's debut novel Jade Fire Gold made the Straits Times bestsellers' list for children's books last month. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JUNE C. L. TAN, HODDER & STOUGHTON

SINGAPORE - In this monthly feature, The Straits Times lines up seven hot-off-the-press home-grown books for readers to dive into.

1. Jade Fire Gold

By June C. L. Tan
Young adult fantasy/Hodder & Stoughton/Paperback/455 pages/$27.82/Available here

The Chinese period dramas and wuxia (martial arts) shows that June C.L. Tan watched at her grandparents' house growing up inspired the Singaporean to write her own xianxia, or Chinese high fantasy.

Her debut novel Jade Fire Gold is set in a fictional warring empire and follows two protagonists: Altan, the vengeful son of an usurped emperor, and Ahn, a peasant girl whose magical power may be the key to helping Altan reclaim his throne.

In the book, which made the Straits Times bestsellers' list for children's books last month, people with magic must suppress their powers or risk persecution from the authorities.

"I drew from the fact that we live in a world where there's a lot of discrimination and prejudice against people who are different, whether it's race, culture, gender or sexuality," says Tan, who is in her early 40s and lives in New York.

She adds that she was inspired in part by learning about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II and how the Japanese later denied their war crimes.

"The whole idea about how history is never written by its victims, and how there's this erasure of certain stories and people's experiences, also relates to our world. It's so easy to erase the past, just write something else and treat it as fact, and then teach it to the next generation."

Though much of her novel's fantasy world is Chinese-coded, Tan wanted to include influences from other areas such as Mongolia and South-east Asia - something which will likely be lost on Western readers, she adds.

Tan, who formerly worked at an educational technology start-up, began writing Jade Fire Gold in late 2015, but sold it to major international publishers HarperCollins and Hodder & Stoughton only in 2019 after several rejections.

"When my former agent started sending the book out to publishers in 2018, we were getting feedback like, 'We love this book, but we already have another similar book on our list.'

"And that was kind of coded language because if you went back to look at the list, they wouldn't really have a Chinese fantasy. Maybe they would have an Indian fantasy, which is a completely different culture, but to the gatekeepers, it's just another diverse fantasy and they've ticked that off their list.

"Sometimes, the rejection comes from editors having ideas about how an Asian fantasy should be. If it doesn't look like Disney's Mulan, it's not really what they're looking for."

But she thinks industry movements such as We Need Diverse Books have helped writers like her get a foot in the door.

Jade Fire Gold is the latest in a wave of new East Asian-inspired young-adult fantasies, which includes buzzy 2019 debuts Descendant Of The Crane by Joan He and Spin The Dawn by Elizabeth Lim.

"I guess publishers saw that readers were happy to have diverse stories in whatever genre they wanted. I think the market is starting to open a little bit more," says Tan.

2. Land Of Sand And Song

By Joyce Chua
Young adult fantasy/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/230 pages/$24.50/Available here

PHOTO: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SOUTH-EAST ASIA

When Desert Rose's chieftain father is overthrown by rebel clans, the 17-year-old sets out to take revenge on Emperor Zhao, who instigated the rebellion and is obsessed with finding a mythical spring in the Khuzar desert.

To do so, she must infiltrate the Imperial Guard and navigate court politics, all the while dealing with the magic gift stirring within her.

3. We, The Robots?

By Simon Chesterman
Non-fiction/Cambridge University Press/Hardcover/289 pages/$64.19/Available here

PHOTO: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS

National University of Singapore law dean Chesterman examines artificial intelligence (AI) systems around the world, from self-driving cars to algorithmic decision- making. He questions whether or not people should regulate AI - and, for that matter, if they can.

4. Kopi, Puffs And Dreams

By Pallavi Gopinath Aney
Fiction/Epigram Books/Paperback/246 pages/$26.64/Available here

PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

In this Epigram Books Fiction Prize-shortlisted debut set at the turn of the 20th century, two young men from India, Puthu and Krishnan, meet aboard a ship bound for Malaya and bond instantly.

In 1910s Singapore, they set up a restaurant selling curry puffs and kopi, which becomes a success. But years later, a dark secret of Krishnan's threatens to upend their lives.

5. The Ash House

By Audrey Chin
Fiction/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/256 pages/$26.64/Available here

PHOTO: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SOUTH-EAST ASIA

Sister Mary Michael Chan, a clairvoyant nun, is sent to the Tjoa ash house, a century-old ancestral home atop Green Hill in the city of Kota Cahaya. Arno Tjoa, the doll-obsessed crippled heir to the crumbling house, believes that the solution to the family's problems lies with the ghost of Bing Fa, the pipa diva who became the Tjoa founder's second wife, now trapped in a doll house.

6. White Cloud Mountain

By Grace Chia
Fiction/Epigram Books/Paperback/256 pages/$20.22/Available here

PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

Audrey, a civil servant longing to escape the grind of her work life, travels to South Korea for a writing retreat in the Wonju mountains.

There, she tries to adjust to residency life, even as a long-buried memory resurfaces to trouble her.

7. Marvellous Mammals

By Debby Ng and Darel Seow
Children's/Difference Engine/Hardcover/64 pages/$24.50/Available here

PHOTO: DIFFERENCE ENGINE

This charmingly illustrated A to Z guide to the mammals of South-east Asia will introduce young readers to animals from the Annamite striped rabbit in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam to the zaglossus, a type of large echidna in Papua.

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