In this elegant collection of stories Eugie Foster bridges the gap between the traditional fairytale and historical fantasy. Throughout the collection she alternates between re-tellings of Chinese and Japanese legends and original stories with elements drawn from the same deep wells. There is a formality to the writing that suits the traditional strain, giving a timeless authority to all the stories without making them unapproachable. On the contrary, they are charming to read.
The first story, one of the strongest, called “Daughter of Botu,” opens with a rabbit giving us a lesson in Buddhism: Buddha teaches us that this existence is one of suffering. And of all the Middle Kingdom, my people, the Clan of Botu, bears the greatest burden of suffering. We are fodder for all — tiger and owl, fox and man — and only those with fleet limbs, strong hearts, and good fortune survive. This is practically a template for all the stories and legends in the book: “Life is hard, but with a bit of quick action and good luck you might pull through.” In this story, the young rabbit finds her way into the human world in order to save her mother and grandmother from starvation. She finds love, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption at a cost — all of them themes that recur in Foster’s stories. Likewise recurring are the characters whose courage, loyalty, and trust in the teachings of Buddha, gods, grandmothers and ghosts sees them through to the sometimes bitter end.
I say bitter because these stories, while they will appeal to younger readers, are not childish in the way we tend to think of fairy tales. To use a western comparison, they are equivalent to the Grimm version of Cinderella, who calls on her dead mother’s spirit to aid her and whose wicked stepsisters cut off bits of their feet to fit the glass slipper — in contrast to the sanitized Disney version we have seen too much of. Lust, madness, treachery, and greed run through Foster’s tales, entwined like yin and yang with the love and loyalty of her heroines. There are no guarantees of a happy ending; good triumphs, but often at a cost. It is one of the things that keeps this collection from becoming saccharine, and it is needed: the maidens are mostly as virtuous as they are lovely, and the heroes are handsome and strong. One does need a certain romantic sensibility to enter fully into this book.
Another pleasure for readers who, like me, might find their romantic streaks running a little thin, is something I can’t help but think of as peculiarly Chinese. Though Foster’s heroines are all young, they are nearly all aided and abetted by their elders, who tend to be wise, of course, but also sly and impatient with complaints. “Destiny is destiny,” says one grandmother. “No one ever consults me about it.” In a genre that tends to assume that life ends at forty, Foster’s old people come as a breath of fresh air. And I think any fantasy reader will relish the fluidity of Foster’s Orient, where animals, demons, gods, and humans trade powers and forms as easily, it seems, as breathing. In “The Clan of Botu,” the young rabbit has the following exchange with her grandmother:
“I’m a human, Nai-nai,” I wailed.
“Yes, I know,” she said, utterly matter-of-fact.
“So are you!”
She half-dragged, half-led me inside. “And before you amaze me with another revelation, your mother is as well.”
It is a mutable, magical world.
There is at least one significant flaw to the collection, but it may have less to do with the author’s skill than with the inherent limitations of the form. Because Foster is performing a balancing act with every tale, holding tradition in one hand and the conventions of modern fiction in the other, even her longer stories suffer a certain lack of complexity or unpredictability. Her maidens are as virtuous as they are lovely, and if the love interest starts out as a demon, well, by the conventions of both fairyland and romance, by the end you know love is going to conquer his innate wickedness. True Love isn’t always enough, which is Foster’s saving grace: sometimes betrayal strikes close to home. But in these stories the rule for telling the difference between Tragedy and Comedy is that in the comedies, the happy ending is a marriage, while in the tragedies, the marriage falls through.
So on the whole I think these stories will appeal most to a romantic sensibility. Foster has a nice blurb from Patricia McKillip, which is appropriate. Like McKillip, she has an eye for the magical image and an ear for the quirky bit of dialogue that keeps the stories from being too mannered. And to readers who are unfamiliar with the folktales and legends of the ancient East, this collection will open a door onto a whole new magical realm.