Book Review: The SEA is Ours

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The SEA Is Ours
edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng
Rosarium Publishing (November 30, 2015)

 

The new anthology The SEA is Ours by Rosarium Publishing presents steampunk, alternate “technofantasy” history, and retrofuturistic stories taking place in SEA—Southeast Asia. The editor duo of Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng strove to bring the readers a more diverse and unusual view of steampunk, one built on the rich history of SEA, meeting grounds of many cultures and languages and some of the most unique landscapes of the world. It includes twelve short stories, largely by authors coming from the region or closely familiar with it.

For me, the absolute peak of the anthology was The Unmaking of The Cuadro Amoroso by Kate Osias. Imagine music, mathematics and psychology, various intersections of science and art—becoming ever more relevant in our own world with the onset of new data imaging methods and virtual reality—all inside a strong and vividly told story of principles, love, and revenge. One of the characters, a genius pianist named Hustino, seeks “elaborate melodic solutions to the mathematical theories embodied in the Cancion del Universo.” It evokes the efforts of late middle age/early modern astronomers and mathematicians to understand the harmonics of the movement of celestial bodies. Music had actually been considered a vital subject of study in connection to understanding the universe in early science.

The opening is foreboding and dark. Three of the Cuadro Amoroso are dead, mere wisps of memory in the mind of the remaining one, a dancer about to give her final performance. A pianist, a gastronomist, a machinist, and a dancer. Each of them is depicted vividly in the small space of the story, and even more so the development of their relationship, influenced by Hustino’s success and its consequences. It’s one of the ambitious stories that would likely fail completely if told by someone without a great sensitivity for style. Osias evidently possesses it, and the result is remarkable.

Beside this highlight of the anthology, there were other very good pieces as well. Marilag Angway’s Chasing Volcanoes is an adventure story of two strong-willed women, an airship captain and a landless princess, and the dangers presented by natural forces and politics alike. It’s full of imagination, fast-paced, and witty. I enjoyed it very much.

On The Consequence of Sound by Timothy Dimacali opens the anthology and brings forth a beautifully written story of a girl whose dream is to become a navigator of one of the floating ships and soar the sky like the majestic sky whales. But she ends up faced with a very difficult decision as she tries to pursue her goal. The biologist in me, though, wondered about the population densities of the sky whales and whether they would have lasted, given the events of the story. But it’s not a fault of the story; you’ll always find a reader in whom it’s harder to elicit the suspension of disbelief.

In Life Under Glass, Nghi Vo portrayed two sisters working on the collection of species for a Universal Exposition in Saigon. It’s a fine example of an engaging and well-written story centered on the inner world of the protagonist, Thi, who discovers a strange new species. Thumbs up: She also thought about population densities!

The Last Aswang by Alessa Hinlo was an imaginative and dramatic story of gods, cultural clashes, betrayal and promise. Paolo Chikiamco’s Between Severed Souls deals with similar topics in an even more dramatic way. Both stories are certainly among the more notable pieces of the anthology.

The Chamber of Souls by ZM Quynh was an interesting piece full of imagination, however, it felt more like a fragment of a larger work than a story able to stand on its own. It contains original ideas and several strong scenes but fails to wrap up the storyline or answer any of the questions coming to a reader’s mind.

In Working Woman, Olivia Ho presented a fast-paced, unusual, and enjoyable variation on the archetypal Frankenstein monster story. It was among the best pieces of the anthology. Spider Here by Robert Liow centers around children betting over part mechanical, part biological fighting spiders. The idea of a world where real neural tissue is used to make machines more adaptable was interesting but not explored very deeply, and the story arrived to a halt before it could develop.

Ordained by L. L. Hill shows the psychological conflict of two brothers, one a monk and the other a doctor, over what’s important in life, but it seemed more like a moral point than an actual story.

By far the weakest piece for me was Petrified by Ivanna Mendels. The info dumps in the beginning and several later scenes, unbelievable and all too sketchy behavior of the characters, and clichéd resolution made me wonder what the story was doing in the anthology. With some changes, it could potentially become a worthy contribution but this seemed too much like some first draft.

The Insects and Women Sing Together by Pear Nuallak follows Petrified and wraps up the anthology. Luckily, it’s a much stronger piece, showing the respective struggles of a mother and her daughter to follow their own paths instead of binding traditions.

Although the quality of the stories fluctuated a little throughout the anthology and I had a problem with several of the pieces seeming like a vignette or a fragment of some larger work rather than a self-contained story, I can honestly recommend reading The SEA Is Ours. One of the stories is truly great, others are very good, and those you will remember. They alone are worth picking up the book. Another good reason to read the anthology is the richly depicted world of alternate SEAs.

I hope that more projects like this one will see the light of day. This is not the first speculative fiction anthology focused on a specific part of the world sometimes unjustly overlooked in the “mainstream” part of SF, and other ones are in preparation, for example The Fae Visions of The Mediterranean. It seems like a good trend to me, one that can bring readers more original, enjoyable fiction. In any case, the quality of the stories should be put in the first place, and The SEA Is Ours did just that.

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Julie Novakova

About Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, journalist and evolutionary biologist. She started publishing in English in 2013 (The Brass City; The Symphony of Ice and Dust). Before that, she had published three novels and about twenty short stories in Czech. She also works as a reviewer, columnist and interviewer mainly for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.