Black Cranes – Book Review

Title – Black Cranes

Author(s) – Multiple

Editors – Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Genre – Multi-genre anthology

“Several times, I’ve woken before sunrise, convinced that something has changed in the middle of the night. As though some god has reached down, and, with a colossal finger, nudged the earth, and now everything is sitting two degrees off-kilter. I scan above for the subtle movement of the clouds, to assure myself that the sky is not a two-dimensional poster glued onto a false backdrop.”

These words could not have rung truer than in the present scenario, with everything seeming to go wrong this year. Tales of Unquiet Women is a befitting subtitle for this collection of short stories, written by women from Southeast Asian backgrounds. I came across this book on a horror literature forum, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the writings cover a plethora of genres – including science fiction, fantasy, humor, mythology, folklore and legend, subtly merging with horror rather than an out-an-out spook fest. The team of contributors come from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and even Asian immigrants to the US and New Zealand, as an embrace as well as rejection of traditional concepts related to femininity and what it means to be a woman – in times gone by, present day, and in years to come. The collection features fourteen stories – including contributions by the editors themselves and a wonderful foreword from Alma Katsu – all different from each other, but similar in their women characters striving to make a place for themselves in their worlds. From spirit foxes taking human form, and ghost babies created from unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, to military women fighting for their place in a male-dominated post-apocalyptic world, and individuals cloned to fabricate the perfect person. There is humor in a spirit expressing discomfort in a human body due to the constrictive lotus feet, and a woman believing her husband is an alien due to an emotional distance after years of marriage; satire in the obsession over fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and the “perfect” attributes of grace, obedience and not speaking ones mind; the frustration of being perfect, but not perfect enough; horrors of betrayal, the warmth of a monster protecting a child, and peculiar tales featuring shelter animals, and monsters and motherhood. The genres and themes cover such a wide range, there is something here for everyone.

The writing is sheer brilliance – quite commendable in an anthology where authors of equal credibility need to be sourced. I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from the book, without revealing the specific writer or story. Note how wonderful they are in their own way.

~In the abandon of your fury, you had cut yourself on its spiteful blade.

~You stormed from room to room, spewing your hurt and your hate, so it dribbled down the wallpaper and seeped through the cracks in the floorboards.

~Alongside a dragon, a butterfly flutters.

~You stitched a life from scraps left in the laundry.

~Some things you knew already. Some things you knew before you were born; they were revealed to you in the rhythm of your mother’s heartbeat and in the echoes of her sighs.

~Memory is an ocean wave: once it has attained enough momentum, it can’t be stopped. It must rise, swell, peak, crash, and be endured.

~A double-punch to the gut – the first blow rendering me immobile for the second, the second intensifying the first. The ripping of a half-dried scab to expose a festering wound.

~Family matter. I’ve heard that excuse many times. Abuse wrapped up in a pretty little bow so no one admits it happens.

~Her eyes were patchwork – flecks of blue and black pooled into warring factions that expressed the conflict inside the girl.

~You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.

~She speaks in a language I don’t recognize, but somehow an understanding sinks into my skin. She speaks of buried dreams, and choked-back words, and old fury knotted into a lump as cold and dense as a black dwarf star.

~Women can be scientists, warriors, princesses, soldiers, caretakers, spirits. We can be many things. The only thing we can’t be is defeated.

A powerful anthology that serves as a reflection of Asian societies – the role of societal expectations, familial obligations, the oppressiveness, submissiveness, and the need for self identity. The element of horror so smoothly weaves itself into the warp and weft of the lyrical and haunting prose, you don’t realize what you’re getting at until you get there. I wish I could review each story individually. I can’t pick a favorite from the lot because they are all so good. The title lends its own significance to the stories within – cranes being associated with grace and fragility, versus the darkness within that finds its way out when suppressed for too long. And that gorgeous cover – a pop of color in the black and grey; a metaphor for beating the darkness and bursting forth with our true selves. This is dark, reflective fiction at its best.

My rating – 5/5

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