REVIEW: THE TERACOTTA BRIDE- by Zen Cho

BLURB: In the tenth court of hell, spirits wealthy enough to bribe the bureaucrats of the underworld can avoid both the torments of hell and the irreversible change of reincarnation.

It’s a comfortable undeath … even for Siew Tsin. She didn’t choose to be married to the richest man in hell, but she’s reconciled. Until her husband brings home a new bride.

Yonghua is an artificial woman crafted from terracotta. What she is may change hell for good. Who she is will transform Siew Tsin. And as they grow closer, the mystery of Yonghua’s creation will draw Siew Tsin into a conspiracy where the stakes are eternal life – or a very final death.- Amazon books.

Review: Zen Cho is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, especially when it comes to fantasy. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant Victorian Steampunk and one of the only ones to explore Britain’s relationships with the word around it, while The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo was a fantastic 20s romance written in a style that was reminiscent of the Master of Romance herself, Jane Austen. The Terracotta Bride is another fantastic entry from the author, a 51 page novella that combines the Malaysian/ Chinese afterlife with a little bit of speculative fiction.

I’ve seen a few stories set in the afterlife and usually they are inspired by Judeo Christian mythology (and in one case the Shinto afterlife), but I’ve never seen one set in the ancient Chinese/ Malaysian afterlife before. This in and of itself makes The Teracotta Bride fascinating; in this world, wealth often depend on the fidelity of one’s descendants as material things are burnt in order to give their ancestors luxuries in the afterlife; there are ten hells in this world, and depending on which sin you commit, you do a certain amount of time suffering a certain punishment until you atone for any offences you’ve committed in your past life; the tenth hell, however, is for those who are either wealthy enough to bribe their way up there, or for those who have committed no sins of note, and this is a comfy waiting room for reincarnation.

It’s interesting that none of the people in the tenth hell actually wanted to be reincarnated; if you become reincarnated, you lose all your memories and personallity, all of who you are and it’s unknown how many horrors of the flesh you would have to endure again when you’re reborn. It was also interesting how the world was very patriarchal and corrupt; although our heroine Siew Tsin, was born in a later time period (it’s unclear when, but most likely in the forties onward as she was hit by a motorcar and possessed ambitions), the world of the afterlife is deeply patriarchal to the point her male ancestor is able to sell her to off to a powerful male as his bride.

Another interesting thing is that the afterlife appears to contain the same flaw as the majority of other afterlives: that your age and appearance is that of when you die. This means that authors always end up using protagonists that die young and tend to be surrounded (Eve and Kristoff Nast from Haunted were in their forties, Siew Tsin was only 19). This makes no logical sense though, as since your body has gone, why would you be bound to your body’s age? Why wouldn’t you appear the age of the prime of your life? Wouldn’t it mean that it would be more forward thinking to kill yourself in your late teens/ twenties/ early thirties after an intense exercise boot camp to ensure you spend the rest of eternity in the best body possible?

But this is a minor problem. The ideas in this novella are true to the idea of the afterlife. Heard of the teracotta soldiers buried with the Chinese Emporor. Well, after the emporor is reincarnated and they have no one left to serve, they don’t disappear, but become like masterless ronin and reek havoc. Those paper servants burnt to serve their master? Are they real with a consciousness, or mindless? The Teracotta Bride is a fascinating idea. Instead of copying the idea of the ancients and building teracotta figurines, what would happen if we used our advanced knowledge of technology to create a servant? This novel then goes down the traditional science fiction route with this character and asks the usual science fiction questions. We have a perfect woman created to serve the needs of her male owner. What is she thinking? Can her true will be brought out from behind her smile? Does a robot have a soul? This is science fiction at its most recognizable, but I’ve never seen these questions asked in this context. This gives the story a fresh feel.

The story itself is just very well paced and interesting. Siew Tsin is the passive doormat character (like RGU’s Anthy, The Color Purple’s Celie, or Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price) who observes the action around her. However, when she meets this terracotta bride, she slowly develops a sweet friendship with her and gains a reason to rebel (like Celie and Anthy). Junsheng and Ling’en are not likable characters, as they are so self absorbed, but they are interesting and the eternal marital disputes between them is interesting. Ling’en even relents from being the cold imperious ice queen and is even able to show some compassion for Siew Tsin, giving her more depth and making her a more human character.

VERDICT: With a unique and well realized world, excellent pacing and some interesting characters, The Terracotta Bride is a brilliant novella is an interesting novella which I would strongly recommend.

RATING: 5 artificial girls / 5

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