REVIEW: Burning Roses by S. L. Huang
Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods.
Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime.
They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them.
When deadly sunbirds begin to ravage the countryside, threatening everything they’ve both grown to love, the two must join forces. Now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, they begin a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality.
CW – past child abuse (not by MC)
Dear Ms. Huang,
The cover grabbed me and the blurb enticed me but from it I thought I was getting a totally different story. Only after I finished this did I discover that there are actually two other short stories that precede it. Still I wasn’t too lost once I realized I just needed to let go and float on the river of story as it was being told.
“Burning Roses” is a mix-mash of East and West. Rosa is a Latina, lesbian Red Riding Hood while Hou Yi is a transgender version of the famous archer of Chinese mythology. The two are now older, tireder, and trying to atone for unbearable betrayals they perpetrated years ago on people they loved. Destructive fire-birds now plague the area, wreaking havoc on innocents. Rosa and Hou Yi once again gird themselves with their weapons and take off to do battle. Only this time, it almost kills Rosa and in her half dead state she thinks she sees and hears someone talking with Hou Yi – someone who apparently hates her friend.
Coming to, Rosa realizes she did see someone talking to Hou Yi and that now Hou Yi feels she must track this person down and stop him. The secrets Rosa and Hou Yi have kept even from each other will spill out over the course of the journey – dark things, horrible past deeds, and betrayals.
There are variations on famous fairy tales here mixed in along with versions of characters who are a little bit what we know but also worked into totally new characters. Rosa had a terrible childhood made better only by time spent with her Abuela. As Rosa tells her platonic companion Hou Yi, her mother wasn’t the kindest person. Abuela taught Rosa how to shoot a rifle which came in handy when Rosa was faced with the outcome of telling a Grundwirgen wolf about Abuela’s isolated house. Fleeing the bloodbath, Rosa wandered until she met up with a version of Goldielocks who is, frankly, a disturbed young girl who grows up to be even more twisted. Rosa was in her thrall until Rosa met a beautiful young woman trapped in the events which have become another fairy tale.
Hou Yi’s past mistakes are coming back to haunt her as she must follow the trail of someone once dear to her who now wants her dead. Hou Yi tells Rosa how she lost not only her beloved wife but also her son to terrible decisions she made which tipped her over the edge of grief and pain. Neither woman expects to survive this journey and in a way they don’t. Different and changed versions of themselves just might though.
I’m still contemplating just how I feel about this novella. As I mentioned, once I realized that I just needed to go with the flow and wait for the details to be revealed, I liked it better. I wish I had had a better understanding of the stories of Hou Yi but beyond reading a few lines about how he (in myths Hou Yi is a man – here Hou Yi is a transgender woman who gets annoyed with the thought of endlessly explaining her true self to people) was an archer in love with a moon goddess, I knew nothing.
Fear, pain, guilt, betrayal, regret lance through the women and shape their current actions. Quite a few plot threads are left untied but at the same time, there is a hopeful feeling that the two can make amends, fix some wrongs, and be reunited with those who love them. The story is packed with self discovery and self examination. None of the characters is faultless and in fact quite a few are broken. But they intrigued me and made me want to read more about them even if I would have enjoyed just a bit more worldbuilding and explanations along the way. B-