Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.


Bring Back My Baby

They were heartbreakingly lovely. Each a miniature world, round and complete, bobbing and shimmering against the drain wall. What were they? Despite her heels, Keiko knelt over the pavement. Eight of them, staring like fish eyes. She shuddered, picking them up with her kitchen forceps. People gave her odd looks–that quick, curious glance before the embarrassed head-ducking that follows at the sight of aberration. She flushed, scurrying back to the junk-jammed pocket of space they’d lived in since nuclear radiation had blown everyone west.

They’d been hounding her, more and more lately. Translucent white globules that appeared everywhere, even in her coffee; and any attempt to get rid of them just brought them back with a vengeance. One night she’d woken to that familiar metallic tang; they were all over her bed, in her mouth, between her legs. Those that had been squished oozed a red juice that wouldn’t come off. She’d had to get new sheets.

Now she just kept them in a cup, far back in the kitchen cabinet.


She jumped, cabinet door banging shut. Her husband stood by the kitchen entrance. His gaze made her flesh crawl. The forceps twisted, round and round, in her fingers.

“We need to ta–”

Her hand flew up, slamming the cabinet door, which had swung ajar.

“Hey. We were merciful. He wouldn’t’ve been happy, growing up like–”

She believed him, she did. But she felt strangely weak. No strength left, to clutch at his words. A rumbling sound had started up in the cabinet and her fingers floated up–stay shut dammit–but already they were jostling out, splatting on the floor like eggs, and in each was a shadow, something wriggling. She shrieked; she didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that thing in front of her.

It was wailing, its hammered-in face glutted with limbs crushed by the doctor’s forceps and spliced back in perverse places, coated in red-tinged slime. Her baby flopped toward her; tiny fingers, tiny toes. He would’ve been lovely, heartbreakingly lovely. She sobbed, shaking. Sorry, Mummy’s sorry.

Her husband tried to stop her. She’d been staring at something invisible between them, and when her arm rose it was as if something had yanked it. The forceps pierced one eye, then the other. 

Eventually, he left her. Not that he minded a blind wife; he just couldn’t stand the monstrous grimace that had grown on her face, as if she had something to spit out all the time. He didn’t know why, but it made his flesh crawl, too.

(about 400 words, written in response to Laura James’ Horror Bites Challenge #6)

“White Bone” Excerpt

Excerpt from my novelette, “White Bone,” published in the Fantasy short story anthology 9Tales From Elsewhere #7. This is a tale of revenge and romance, inspired by the Chinese myth of Bai Gu Jing, or White Bone Spirit, in which a king storms into the woods to slay a beast, and there encounters a woman whom he falls in love with. But she is dead unless he comes face to face with his troubled past.

He had been nearing the temple, but first he had decided to stop by the river for a quick rinse, to wash the grime off his face and hands before entering his ancestral abode. Now, weary though he was, he felt the familiar stirring in his blood, and was glad he had stopped. There by the river where the wild peony grew, where its thousand-petalled blooms dripped their heavy inflorescences from their arcing branches, there a slender arm lifted languidly and lowered, trickling diamond water; and the shining wet ebony sheet that was her hair rose with it to reveal just the barest sliver of hip, then rose some more to uncover, just for a moment, the perfect, shadowy dent in the small of her back, whispering secrets.

His heart quickened; his blood sang fire. Desire strained his will, shackles of decency ringing a low note against the burn.

Water lapped, black and lustrous, against her hip, indistinguishable from her floating hair. Sinuous curves melted into it, pink-tinted, like the colour of snow under an alpenglow of dawn. His foot crunched on the forest bed.

Startled, she paused, then turned curiously to peer over her shoulder. Dark eyes lifted, uncertain, round shadows cast like clandestine meeting places in an exquisite face that, unveiled of her hair, blossomed out before him like petals of a moonflower, opening one by one.

For a moment, he saw his own reflection in them. Such a powerful, striking figure he cut, in those deep pools silvered like mirrors. Above them, her eyelashes lightly quivered, like the shadows of flickering candle-flames, shivering though untouched by wind. Then the petals lowered again over her eyes, and her moon-washed hair cascaded back over her shoulders; she had not seen him.

He snapped. All at once he was an animal—and like an animal he took her, from the back, just out of sight of the temple by the river where the wild peonies still grow.

She moulded herself meekly to his rough hands, silent and acquiescent as river water shaping itself around the hard, feverish body of a man cutting through it. Forward and speedily he propelled himself, his arms knifing through the waves, crushing with the weight of the world; but the water dispersed around him, and drifted at his touch, so that though he swam through it he could not grasp a single, sliding drop in his hands.

You can get the full story from the Amazon Kindle store. Comments / reviews welcome. 🙂

On Kvothe

Warning: the following may contain spoilers!

It seems that Patrick Rothfuss’ notorious protagonist is one of those characters you either love or loathe. In a quiet inn tucked away in an almost forgotten rural town, the mild and unassuming innkeeper Kote tells a scribe the story of his past as the legendary Kvothe. And in the beginning, it seems the bright-eyed, brilliant, proud and precocious young Kvothe can be no more further from the silence of the wind that he spends the rest of the next two books struggling to grasp.

All fantasy is, in a sense, “wish-fulfilment”, as Tolkien would agree. In his poem “Mythopoiea” the father of the Fantasy genre as we know it today declares proudly that “Yes! ‘Wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat / Our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!” Kvothe, as a character who in the beginning seems too perfect to be true, is everything we would wish to be: a musical prodigy and academic genius, skilled both in magic and rhetoric, brave and flawlessly handsome, defender of justice and heroic rescuer of distressed damsels. When met with difficulty he conquers them without much difficulty with his wit and his talents. If one didn’t know he was going to end up as Kote, the meek and despondent innkeeper who seems to have lost all hope, ambition, confidence and talent, one would think Kvothe not a very likeable character indeed. This seems to be one of the major criticisms of the protagonist – perfection that doesn’t allow one to suspend disbelief.

But a star only makes waves when it falls from great heights, and a tragedy that doesn’t fall with a resounding crash would hardly be tragic at all. In the beginning Kvothe has to be perfect – just as Agamemnon was before he died, just as Oedipus was before he was brought low and exiled. And though it is not yet clear what the fatal flaw of Kvothe is exactly, Rothfuss does seem to be setting the stage for a great fall. The framing narrative of Kote, which not only frames the story of Kvothe but also intersperses it, serves as a constant reminder of dread. The future, fixed and immutable, embodied by the most frightening creature the Cthaeh of which even the Fae fear to speak, hangs threateningly over all of Kvothe’s successes – so that the more triumphant his success, the more chilling the dread.

So if I were to criticise the character at all it would not be his perfection, which is necessary for a tragic fall; if I were to pick a fault with him at all, it would be his likability. Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire the guy; but it seems some hate him with a vengeance. Okay, so I get that that some people just don’t dig cockiness, just as some just don’t get why Denna, the wild and elusive love of Kvothe, should be so desirable to all the men in the story. (Some people prefer the aloofness of cats, the elusive grandeur of eagles in flight; some like the dramatic swag of peacocks, and others like panting, affectionate and down-to-earth dogs. I’m a cat and eagles person, myself. ☺️) But these are just personal preferences – no reason to trash the book! Chill, people.

Besides, a hero doesn’t have to be likeable; he just has to be relatable. And although Kvothe is a genius he certainly is relatable. The fact that he’s a genius doesn’t make him any less relatable any more than I wouldn’t be able to relate to Einstein if he tried to engage me in conversation. Genius as he is, he is nevertheless human and subject to pain, fear and death; and the beautiful thing is that although he is perfectly gifted he is not too perfect to learn. And he does learn, eventually. It is a long journey, but he learns humility. He learns to let go of his desire for mastery, for control of a thing, and to embrace it instead with all its mystery.

In fact, it is in this, his pride, that he is most human. Pride is our fatal flaw. It makes man a Saruman, seeking always to dominate the world with our knowledge and our science and our belief that we can and should understand all things. But during his visit to Fae, Kvothe learns from Felurian, just as we do from fantasy, that even the simplest things cannot be totalised; that the name of even the smallest piece of stone, as Elodin at the start tries in vain to teach Kvothe, has a name more complex than our conscious, rational or ever-rationalising, totalising minds can ever imagine, and more complex than our language can ever grasp – a name which can only be comprehended in the silence of dreams, which are the seed of fantasy.

On the whole, though Rothfuss’ prose isn’t particularly beautiful save for the occasional few lines, and may at times be a little too trite or lacking in subtlety, his style works. Characterisation is vivid, there’s plenty of witty banter, and his language is clear, memorable, and sharp enough to make me laugh and cry not just once but repeatedly and uncontrollably (and in public – how embarrassing). Will definitely be getting the next novel.

三国 (Three Kingdoms)

Regarding his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, father of fantasy J. R. R. Tolkien said, “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” This is why his secondary world Middle-earth, though replete with elves, dwarves and dragons, is bound nevertheless by its own inner laws that stray not too far from the natural laws of our earth. From Homer to George R. R. Martin, myth, or what we now call fantasy, has always been ruled by what Tolkien calls an “inner consistency of reality”; it is that which gives the genre its relevance and appeal. Stories like the Game of Thrones or The Name of the Wind are so loved not because they depict worlds in which anything goes but because they depict characters bound by rules that force them into difficulties or situations they must face with wit, courage, or conscience. Placing them in a different world simply allows us to see, from a different view and perhaps more clearly, the same age-old human conflicts arising from those clashes of interests and values that have been around ever since humans started living together.

I was sucked for the longest time into the whirling Chinese epic 三国, or Three Kingdoms – the 2010 TV series based on Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese literary classic.

Set in the Han dynasty, the show depicts the struggles between the famous political leaders Cao Cao (曹操), Liu Bei (刘备) and Sun Quan (孙权), as well as the highly impressive, sometimes amusing, other times pitiful, but always entertaining battles of wit between their strategists Sima Yi(司马懿), Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) and Zhou Yu (周瑜)respectively.

I must admit that I took such a long time watching it because I absolutely refused to rely on English subtitles; so thank God for Pleco, the Chinese-English dictionary app without which my watching of the show would have been a whole lot more tedious. The full force or impact of words are somehow always lost in translation. The rhythms, cadences, meanings and emotional impact of the Chinese poetry and dialogue somehow just seem clumsy in English, or just plain silly.

This is not to say that non-Chinese-speakers cannot enjoy the tale. When I was watching the TV series I was also at the same time reading the English translation of Luo Guanzhong’s novel, and even the bare bones of the plot has sufficient drama to entertain. I found the names confusing, though – often there seemed to be too many characters to remember; characters are not always referred to with the same names (Cao Cao, for instance, is also referred to as Mengde, Cao Mengde or just Cao), and spelling of Chinese names seem inconsistent and overly complicated. Without faces to go with the names it was pretty frustrating. One is much better off watching the TV series, even if it must be with English subs. The plot will blow your mind. I almost fell in love with Zhuge Liang during the show; he’s that brilliant.

Referring to a map of the ancient world of the time of Three Kingdoms was immensely satisfying – a habit which fans of epic fantasy should be familiar with. It gave me a better understanding of the plot, the characters’ strategies and a greater appreciation of their ingenuity.

And in fact the deeds of Zhuge Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 15.10.14Liang have been thought of as magic. But no, despite being a lover of the Fantasy genre, I must say Zhuge Liang’s ingenuity far outshines any mere magic. Magic, especially under the hands of less talented writers, can sometimes be used as a much too convenient plot point. But anyone who followed closely Game of Thrones for love of the game would find that the game played here is far better played – a dance that, as Patrick Rothfuss would say, reveals the moving of great minds.