by S. L. Huang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 3, 2020
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Burning Roses will be published on September 29, but I received an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I waited until after finishing to google a word she used that was unfamiliar, but understandable in context. It seems to be one she created herself, although it could be from folklore that for some reason has never been documented in print or digital form, but that seems unlikely. The word is "grundwirgen," which sounds German, but Huang is of Chinese ancestry although born in the US. Grundwirgen are a lot like what were called "wesen" in the TV show Grimm, beings that have both human and animal forms. As in that show, even when they are in their beastly form it doesn't mean they are the real monsters, which later comes back to haunt Rosa. There are at least three different types of grundwirgen: animals that have developed human characteristics, including speech; humans who have been cursed to inhabit an animal body; witches who can shape-shift into animal form at will. Self defense is the exception to killing them. My search also informed me there have been two other stories in this sequence. In one of them there is this quote: "Killing a grundwirgen is murder, the same as killing a man. This has not stopped everyone."
This is a novella, although I think it is very close to novel length, but still a quick read. Even though set in an unidentified Asian land, a lot of the story is similar to fairy tales common in Europe. From an early age Rosa questions the restrictions on killing grundwirgen, since their descriptions seem to be of monsters. Her first encounter is with one in the guise of a wolf that killed and ate her grandmother, and yes, Rosa wears a red cloak. Another character is named Goldie, and when Rosa first meets her she thinks she is being threatened by three bears. Quite the reverse actually. A later scene is reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Others might be from Asian folklore I'm not familiar with. Rosa has killed more grundwirgen than even her wife Mei and daughter Xiao Hong are aware of, but eventually justice comes calling and she has to run. The story begins when Rosa is older, estranged from her family and living with Hou Yi, another monster hunter. A nearby village is attacked by sunbirds, which are similar to dragons, although the fire is generated by their whole body not just their breath. One of them takes the form of a man from Hou Yi's past, so she knows where they originated. She intends to track them to an island to the east, and Rosa goes with her. During their journey we get flashbacks to previous events, with some things getting mere hints, not to be fully revealed until the end. Or not fully revealed at all, even when Rosa is reunited with her family.
The major themes are honesty, or the lack thereof, compassion, and forgiveness. Rosa left her family to protect them, and her guilt convinces her they would never forgive her, for both her crimes and the abandonment. Hou Yi has similar regrets, and guilt. Hou Yi wants to find her son, while Rosa is afraid to confront her family again. Two short stories that also explore these themes are available online at Book Smugglers. Hunting Monsters is very close to the flashbacks of Rosa's early life, although there are a few changes in the timeline, and some actions are switched to different characters. Fighting Demons concerns an adventure with Mei and Xiao Hong after they decide to find Rosa, wherein they help someone else with their problem in order to get help in return. That person has a name similar to Hou Yi's son, but their story is completely different. Magic, mystery, and adventure blend into an intriguing fable of love gained and lost, then recaptured at the end. All the principal characters are reunited in the end, but that doesn't mean suspicion and resentment are defeated. Hard work is still ahead to keep them together. As it is with all relationships. Highly recommended.
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