|Art by Kristina Tsenova|
"Fighting Demons" by S.L. Huang (7079 words)
Yes. Yes to all of this. I quite enjoyed the first story set in this world, "Hunting Monsters," and this does a great job of following up, of taking the themes and ideas farther without dropping them, without tying them up in neat ribbons. This is no less a complicated story, no less a complex and layered story. If anything the story manages to further deepen and widen with the addition of new settings and new characters. Because taking Mei and Xiao Hong out of the land where they had lived for so long, out of the West, and putting them in the East, where magic and magical beings are much more common, forces them not only to confront their nature as immigrants but also the crimes of Auntie Rosa and their feelings about each other, about the proper relationship between parents and children.
Which is a strong and persistent theme in the work. What should the parent-child relationship look like? How should it work? For Xiao Hong it's a relationship that's broken, where she doesn't owe her parents anything, where her anger twists her love into something else, into something resembling hate. For Meng Jiao, a young man whose snake demon mother has been long imprisoned, it's a relationship built on duty and love. He's supposed to live up to the expectations put upon him, even as he's uncomfortable with the actions of his parents, even as he sees that what is expected of him isn't really what's best for everyone. I loved the way the story had the two characters, still dealing with their childhoods, clash and draw close. How they were drawn to each other because of their age, because of their situations. And I loved how they learned from each other, how they managed to hurt each other enough to shock each other out of the destructive paths they were on. Not to be blindly obedient and not to let anger corrupt love. The characters' journeys are similar and not, both beginning from very different places and ending up a bit closer.
The story doesn't really offer a neat and tidy ending or message, either. How can it, when it's about family? Family is a messed up topic. It would be easy to come down on the side of family being some universal good, but that's definitely not the case. For both characters, family is something that has left scars on them. But then, just because damage has been done doesn't mean family is worthless. For both characters, family becomes about finding their own way, their own path, making their parents see that they are people, that they deserve their own place. It's an interesting examination of family that crosses cultures, and in the end the story leaves the outcome nebulous. The idea being, or at least as I read it, that there is no philosophy that can answer for these characters how to be proper sons and daughters. Each situation is unique, and each person must judge for themselves how to act, who to be, how to fit in or reject the trappings of family. It's an interesting story, and there's also a demon army and a battle that is largely (and artfully) left unseen. It's a fine tale, and a great sequel. Go read it!