Aliette de Bodard reviews J. Damask (Joyce Chng)’s first novel, Wolf at the Door – the world’s first Singaporean werewolf novel!
So, I finally got a chance to read J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door (published by Lyrical Press)–and really, really liked it. It’s a urban fantasy set in Singapore: Jan Xu is part of the lang, the Chinese werewolves: her pack is her family, and the thing around which her world revolves. She has married and settled down with her partner Ming, who isn’t a werewolf; and she has two small girls, whom she raises half like humans, half like wolves.
Then Marianne comes back. Marianne is Jan Xu’s sister, but there’s a catch: raised like all werewolves, Marianne failed to shape-shift when she hit puberty. Though considered a member of the family, Marianne has always chafed at what she saw as second-class membership of the pack, and left Singapore after quarrelling with Jan Xu. But now she’s back, boyfriend in tow–and she seems to have ideas of her own about where to take the pack…
This is original on several levels: the most obvious is the setting, which shows us not only Singapore seen through the view of an insider, with no exoticisation or over-description of familiar items and locations. It’s very casual about everyday life, but nevertheless effectively manages to convey not only Jan Xu’s life and her excursions to all ends of the city (including a hunting reserve in Malaysia), but also to effectively base its mythology on its setting, making the most of Singapore as a crossroads, teeming with immigrants who each bring their own folklore (I loved the bar which had vampires mingling with nagas). I also liked the way Damask ties her werewolves to Chinese folklore, rather than to European myths; it’s very nicely done.
The second thing is the emphasis on family. A lot of urban fantasy is focused on the single girl (who might have children of her own, but who is still secretly looking for The One); and while those are definitely strong stories, it was really nice to see a book which focused on, well, what happens after the wedding and the childbirths. Marianne’s returns has repercussions on Jan Xu’s family life, and her relationship with her husband and her two girls: some of my favorite scenes take place in the quiet times at the flat, when the emphasis is on how she and Ming can deal with the consequences of what happened, and how to best shield the girls from it all. Jan Xu also has strong ties to her extended family, which nicely dovetail into the pack mentality of werewolves.
It’s not perfect. There is a set of flashbacks to Jan Xu’s past as a teen vigilante (sort of The Famous Five, except with dragons and other supernatural creatures), which feel a bit out of place: I love the background and the fact that they place Jan Xu’s friends as strong individuals (and I would really love to see those expanded into a YA novel), but the way they’re scattered throughout the story feels a little haphazard, and I felt those sections could have greatly benefitted from tidying up. But, all in all, it was a very nice and interesting read, and definitely worth a look if you’re tired of urban fantasies set in the US.
Wolf at the Door, by J. Damask, published by Lyrical Press
E-book, $4.50, Cover art by Lynn Taylor