How I Got My Agent: The Query Letter

Back when I was querying agents in 2016, one of the most helpful things I did was read successful query letters by other authors. I’d look at how they introduced their characters, how they raised the stakes, and how they presented themselves as authors. There are a ton of good ones out there, but I thought I’d share mine too. It’s been a few years, and I’ve matured a lot since then (I was nineteen. NINETEEN) but hey–it worked, so I’m proud of it.

For timeframe reference, I started querying in January 2016, and I had an agent by early February. My agent search went very smoothly and quickly, and I attribute that to a) sliding into peoples’ inboxes at a lucky post-holiday time and b) having a decent query letter!

I’ve posted the letter first in its original, unedited text. This is the actual thing that I pitched to Hannah Bowman, the amazing agent I’m with now. (Yes, THE POPPY WAR was called SPEER’S VENGEANCE at the time. Terrible title. I know. And yes, it was only 137,000 words back then. It grew about 18,000 words during six rounds of edits.) I used a nearly identical letter for most of the other agents I queried to–I only tailored a few words to cater to what I’d seen in agents’ wish lists. I ended up getting a ton of partial requests, a lot of full requests, and three final offers. So while I’d change a few things about the letter if I were writing it today, it was still pretty successful.

I’m also including a version with my annotations on which parts I think worked, and why. I’m not an agent or a mind reader so my advice may not apply to everyone. Take it all with a grain of salt, and reject what doesn’t work for you. But I hope this helps a little!

Here’s the original:

Dear Hannah,

How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid? I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words. 

Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects. Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics. 

(Read: get high, breathe fire.) 

But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war. When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity. 

My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade. 

This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators. I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley. 

Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun. 

I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response.

Rebecca Kuang

Fancy, no? I was such an obnoxious nineteen-year-old. I was an undergraduate presenting myself like I was a university researcher (and people still get confused about that today, but that’s entirely their own fault) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (For the record, I am still an undergraduate, but graduating next month and starting grad school at Cambridge in September.)
Here’s a version with my comments in bold:

Dear Hannah, [People give mixed advice on whether to use agents’ first names or last names. Some agents I’ve talked to say they prefer first names because otherwise things sound horribly formal. They aren’t your schoolteacher. And you are, after all, looking for a business partner. But I don’t think there’s one right way to do this. No one’s going to reject a query based on how you addressed them.]

How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid?[I’m really proud of this first sentence. I think it packs a ton of specific details about the story into a very short lead, and makes it clear it’s a story about marginalized perspectives without spelling it out.] I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words. [I’ve read a lot of advice about necessary information to put in the first paragraph, and I think it’s standard. Include title, genre, and word count. Some people do comp titles here too; I didn’t because I’d read a warning about comparing yourself to overly-ambitious comps and I got scared.]

Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects.[Introduce the main character and give us a reason to care about them!] Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics. [Look at all that world building! I’m going to use the word “specificity” a lot, but I think it’s wildly important to highlight the details that set your MS apart from others in the genre.]

(Read: get high, breathe fire.) [I like this sentence because it shows my writing voice and sense of humor. It’s a nice, curt summary of the world’s magic system. And it’s forking funny!] 

But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war.[Once I introduced a character for us to care about, I panned outward and outlined the stakes.] When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity. [I think this last sentence was meh, but it does the job. It outlines the central conflict and makes the reader intrigued in how things play out, without spelling out the ending. The important thing is that we have someone to care about, a goal they are trying to achieve, and the impediments to that goal.]

[I think this next paragraph is optional. Some people include information about their writing background and previous publications. I didn’t have any, so I didn’t. But I did have academic background relevant to the story, so I used this space to describe a) why I wrote this story and b) why I was the best person to write the story.]

My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade. [More hints at what will be in the book without spelling out the plot. Also, specific details and historical allusions make it clear I know what I’m talking about!]

This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators.[I like to just laundry list a bunch of themes my book touches on. I think it’s a quick and easy way to describe what you’r about.] I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley. [Make it clear that you’re querying this particular agent for a reason! Some people do this part in the first paragraph. I don’t think it matters where you do it, as long as you do.]

Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun. [Again, voice and humor. Long paragraphs become a slog to read, so I tend to break them up with short punchy sentences to give the reader a break.]

I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response. [Common courtesy!]

Rebecca Kuang


Obviously, there are some cringe-worthy moments in there. The more you grow as a writer, the more often you become ashamed of your younger self. But this query letter worked–and I don’t think it’s a bad one. Take what is helpful and laugh at what isn’t. And good luck on your agent search!

THE POPPY WAR Excerpt Live Now!

What’s good, friends?

To everyone who’s been asking when they can read an excerpt of THE POPPY WAR: the answer is NOW! The Barnes & Noble SFF blog ran the first chapter today. They’re calling it the “buzziest fantasy debut of 2018.” That’s right, motherforkers. I am an infernal horde of BEES.

Go check it out, and I hope you like it! (And if you do, won’t you consider pre-ordering? ❤ )

PS! If you dig the prose and still can’t wait for May 1, is running an excerpt of Chapter 17 later this month! It strikes an entirely different tone from the opening and it’s gruesomely creepy. I can’t wait for you to read it.

Updates and Misc

Hey, friends. What’s new with you?

I haven’t blogged much lately, which I attribute mostly to being a second-semester senior and having a thesis to worry about (not to mention committing myself to hammering out at least 1500 words a day in Book 3! slow and steady!). But I have some writing updates, small and large, so here’s a messy accumulation of just about everything that’s been going on with me.

What I’ve Published 

I’ve had some non-fiction essays come out the last time I posted here!

“The Racial Rubber Stamp” came out on the SFWA blog back in January, and it’s a lengthy tirade on some of the micro-aggressions non-white writers often face in mostly white writing spaces.

“How to Talk to Ghosts” dropped on the Uncanny Magazine website today. It’s about historical and intergenerational trauma, bare family trees, and white appropriation of diasporic pain.

What I’m Reading 

I recently committed myself to reading War and Peace, all the way through, without breaks. This ended up being awful idea, but I keep my commitments. (Angry Natasha botched her engagement to Prince Andrey like that, but excited to see where Natasha+Pierre is headed. Also, pretty certain things are not going to end well for Sonya and Nikolay, but a girl can hope.)

Other than that, here’s a list of recent reads that I enjoyed very much:

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, by Kij Johnson (a reimagining of the H.P. Lovecraft original that actually has WOMEN! and is beautifully rendered, like everything else by Kij ever)
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (and all of its sequels! I’m mad my friends haven’t forced me to read these earlier. This trilogy was a delight and I’ll be crying over Holland forever.)  
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee (which was recently nominated for a NEBULA AWARD and absolutely deserves it! I’ve tweeted about this book before, but I’ll mention again how nostalgic this book makes me for the Hong Kong action films my family watched when I was little.)
  • Definitely Maybe by the Strugatsky brothers (wow, this one freaked me out. Like most Russian scifi does.)

I’m open for suggestions for what to tackle after I’m FINALLY done with Tolstoy. I really want to get my hands on Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, but that’s not out from Saga until June. Let me know what you’ve enjoyed recently! Just preferably something not Russian, please >.>

Where I’m Going

ICYMI, I had my first reading last Friday with the Washington Science Fiction Association and it was tons of fun! Here’s a photo courtesy of the lovely Elly Ha. (Thanks again #TeamThao for coming out to support me <3)


I’m next reading with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society on April 14 (time and location to come) so stay on the lookout if you’re in the Maryland area.

Slowly and surely my summer con schedule is coming together. I’ll be at ICFA in two weeks to receive my Dell finalist award, WisCon in May (fingers crossed I get on some cool panels), and likely BookCon. Then–who knows? Anyone have the lowdown on fun cons in the UK? ^_^

And…what’s going on with THE POPPY WAR?

Still coming out in May. Still available for pre-order, if you’d like to help boost my sales rankings 😉 It’s also been getting some pretty nice reviews, which is exciting! Publisher’s Weekly called it an “ambitious fantasy reimagining” that is a “strong and dramatic” launch to my career. It made Amazon’s list of 10 Highly Anticipated New SF&F Books, and it’s been chosen as a main selection for the Science Fiction Book Club! Lotta buzz for a debut book that won’t be out for months. And I’m told Goodreads has been very kind to it too (I have a policy of not looking, but my friends flag the nice reviews for me!).

That’s all for now on my end. More updates to come as we get closer to publication date…get excited!

The Poppy War: Cover Reveal

The cover art for THE POPPY WAR is finally here!

I can’t even express how much I love this. (I may have shed a single tear when I saw the art for the first time.) The title font, the smoke, the brushwork, the colors, Rin’s clothes, Rin’s bow, Rin’s expression, everything.

It is very, very strange to see an illustrated depiction of a character that until now has only lived inside your head. Even stranger to see an illustration that matches exactly your mental image. I mean, look at her. Look at my baby. Look at her hair. IS SHE NOT GORGEOUS?

There was a lot that went on behind the scenes with the cover design and I couldn’t be happier with what we ended up with. I have to thank my editor and the entire team at Harper Voyager for listening carefully to my cultural feedback and making sure the cover aligned with my vision for the story.

THE POPPY WAR is out in May this year. The cover was designed by Dominic Forbes with art by Jung Shan Chang. You can read more about the cover design process over here at the Barnes & Noble SFF blog.



2017 Writing Restrospective

I probably shouldn’t be writing this. I’m procrastinating on doing a final cleanup of Book 2 before I send it to my editor, so of course my brain wanted to do a 2017 writing retrospective post instead. But I think that it’s easy for writers to get caught up in the weeds and lose sight of how much we’ve actually accomplished, so I’m stepping back to take stock of my year.

Things I did this in 2017:

  • FINALLY finished Book 2 sometime this summer. For anyone who’s curious, the second book IS harder, the sophomore slump is very very real (so is imposter syndrome), and writing another manuscript will make you doubt everything you thought you knew about writing. I was very lucky to have attended the CSSF Novel Writer’s Workshop with Kij Johnson, which helped me think through my myriad plot holes and develop an outline for Book 3 that I feel comfortable with.
  • Wrote about 64k words of Book 3 (at the time of this blog post.) Work on this one was much slower because I spent almost this entire past semester applying for graduate school. But now I’m on break, and by my count have written 15,000 words in the last week, so we’re doing pretty well.
  • Wrote a non-fiction piece on diversity at writing workshops and sold it to the SFWA blog. It’ll be up sometime in the next few weeks, and it’s about the Racial Authority Problem–that is, when you become the default authority on everything race-related by virtue of being the only POC in the room.
  • Sold another non-fiction essay to [CLASSIFIED AS OF NOW AND TO BE REVEALED SOON.] It’s about ghosts, historical memory, and writing historical fiction. I’m thrilled for this one. It’s been both easy and painful to write, which I think is an indication that it will be good.
  • Did my first ever panels (and went to my second ever writing convention) at World Fantasy Con. And I met some amazing people at WFC that I can now count as friends, which was probably the highlight of the year.

Things I learned in 2017:

  • Outlines are your friends. Writing by the seat of your pants might work for the first book in a trilogy but it CERTAINLY WILL NOT WORK FOR THE REST OF IT.
  • Writing at school is really, really hard. Go easy on yourself. Don’t panic so much.
  • Don’t put off reading, even when you’re deep into deadlines. Reading fiction–good fiction, different fiction–will remind you how to string words together. It’ll remind you how to open and close chapters. It’ll teach you what natural dialogue sounds like, because God knows you write like everyone’s reading out loud from a military strategy manual.
  • You are a better writer than you were before, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
  • Don’t write next to your dog. He will demand that you pet him and you won’t get anything done.

It was a difficult year, but a good year. I’m proud of what I’ve done, even though sometimes bringing myself to write felt like pulling teeth. I’m starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of being a career writer now, not just a one-shot wonder. The difference now, I think, is that I write. Every day, according to schedule, until I meet word count, no matter how much I don’t want to. I write.


The Last Jedi: The Problem with Rose

[WARNING: Many spoilers to follow. Save yourself.]

[Edit: My website seems to be getting crazy traffic because of this post, which is strange because I put it up so many months ago. Would someone stopping by mind letting me know in a comment where it’s all coming from? Is this linked somewhere? Thank you!)

As a Chinese-American girl who’s been watching Star Wars since before she could speak English, I’ve been waiting my entire life to see someone like Rose Tico in the Star Wars universe. I got some kicks in last year with Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, but Rose is a girl. Rose looks like me.

So her shoddy treatment by The Last Jedi stung all the more.

To be clear, I loved this movie. I cheered, laughed, and cried. The visuals are gorgeous; every performance is flawless. But we have to talk about Rose.

There’s a lot to like about her. Kelly Marie Tran is both a fantastic actor and a spunky, adorable beam of light who plays Rose with the same enthusiasm and open-heartedness that characterize Daisy Ridley and John Boyega’s performances. The opening scenes with Rose’s sister Paige made me tear up (I too have a younger sister.) Rose’s grief only makes her braver and more determined; she stops Finn from deserting and she inspires him to go on that ill-fated mission to Canto Bight. In all fairness, Rose had far more nuance and complexity than I expected she would get.

The problem isn’t that Rose was a poorly conceived character. It’s that after those poignant opening scenes, The Last Jedi gives her nearly nothing to do.

Plenty of other pieces have already criticized the unnecessary distraction of the Canto Bight storyline. You could feel the energy sap out of the theater every time the action cut away from Rey arguing with Luke or Poe being Poe. The city isn’t the strikingly cool galactic gambling center we were led to expect; it’s just a Vegas substitute where some actors are wearing masks. The phrase “master code-breaker” sounds so juvenile I’m shocked it made it into the script. The betrayal doesn’t land because we don’t know much about DJ in the first place, we don’t care, and he and Finn/Rose don’t go way back like Lando/Han did. (Really, it was kind of dumb for Finn and Rose to trust him as much as they did.) The constant references to the military industrial complex (Canto Bight’s elite are rich on the weapons industry, but they sell to both good guys and bad) were initially fascinating, but promptly dropped and never mentioned again.

Otherwise, all the Canto Bight arc does is give Poe a reason to stir up some drama on the main rebel ship and make us think for much of the movie that Holdo is a baddie.

But my biggest frustration is that Rose is the most irrelevant part of an already irrelevant arc.

See, Rose does almost nothing of importance after she’s introduced. She just kind of tags along. She’s an engineer who’s handy with a taser, but uses neither of those skill sets on Canto Bight or the First Order ship. She wrings her hands uselessly after she’s thrown in jail. She follows nervously behind Finn on the First Order ship. We’re proud of her when she gives up her necklace to DJ as payment, but she gets it back twenty minutes later. Sure, she utters some nice soundbites about growing up on a mining world decimated by the First Order, and she reminds us what the human impact of of a galactic dictatorship really is. But otherwise, you could have completely cut Rose out of the second half  of the movie and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Perhaps the most frustrating Rose scene was during the battle on Crait, when she rams into Finn’s ship to stop him from sacrificing himself to destroy a the “Battering Ram Cannon” (or whatever it was called.) Finn didn’t know that Luke or Rey were coming. Finn thought, justifiably so, that he had to die to buy the Resistance valuable minutes.

And Rose is just like nah.

(“What the hell, Rose,” muttered someone in the audience.)

“Why did you do that?” Finn demands.

“You don’t fight to destroy what you hate. You fight to save what you love,” Rose says, or something to that effect. Then she kisses him. Then she promptly passes out.

First, uh, saving what he loved was precisely what what Finn was trying to do. It’s not like Finn just hates battering ram cannons.

Second, Rose’s most defining motivation this entire time has been the death of her sister. She’s willing to sacrifice her necklace, her life, anything for the cause she believes in. So this about-face maneuver, while maybe philosophically interesting, is odd given that nothing has happened to her during the Canto Bight arc to make her change her mind. It’s like this movie passed the Mako Mori test by cheating. It’s character development from nowhere.

Rose could have made so many different choices–choices of importance–that would have demonstrated real growth. But instead, her character feels like a handout. Rose, like many of the offhand references to the military industrial complex and environmentalism, felt like a well-intentioned gesture towards diversity and social awareness that fell flat because there was no follow-through. Rose reads like a diversity set piece. I’m scared she’s a token.

Rose deserved so much better. But I’ll be back to watch Episode IX, because I expect–and hope–that she and Kelly Marie Tran will be given more to do.

P.S. Rose’s budding romance with Finn irks me. I’m not opposed to their getting together in general, but their kiss felt strange and seriously out of left-field. We’ve seen Rose and Finn develop a good friendship, but we haven’t seen any previous signs of romantic attraction between them. There’s no chemistry. And a small part of me is still raging at the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t kiss.

P.P.S. The racial dynamics of the scene where Phasma calls Finn “scum” were amazing. The tall, blonde white woman fighting for the Nazi army calls the black man a slur. He sends her spiraling into a fiery explosion of death with a smirk on his face. “Rebel scum” is right.

P.P.P.S. The Last Jedi is weirdly environmentalist. There’s a nice pro-vegetarianism scene with Chewie and the porgs. There’s a not-so-subtle criticism of the horse-racing industry when the Fathiers get freed. I’m not sure what the message is with the crystal critters, but they’re pretty.

P.P.P.P.S. I want a stuffed porg for Christmas.

World Fantasy Con 2018: Recap

Update: I appreciate the positive messages, but I’m turning comments off now for reasons you can guess. If you were going to leave something rude, go find something better to do with your time.

This will be a blog post in two parts.

First, I want to elaborate on some of the points I made during my panel on cultural appropriation. I’ve already tweeted about below, if you’d like to read the original thread. But a couple points are worth expanding.

First, I kept hearing the myth that diverse works don’t sell. Let’s put aside the subtle (well, overt) racism inherent in that argument for a moment and just look at cold hard numbers. Diverse stories are popular! The audience is out there! People from privileged backgrounds want to see stories from viewpoints and histories that aren’t their own. People from marginalized backgrounds want to see themselves represented! Many of the biggest hits of 2017 were by creators of color–see Get Out, see The Hate U Give, see Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels/film in development. Refusing to work with creators of color isn’t just bigoted, it’s bad for business.

Second, permission to fail is privilege. (An audience member very eloquently made this point, and I’m sorry that I don’t know your name.) Books by white authors sell very badly very often. Publishing is fickle. No one can predict how a book will sell. But when white authors flop, no one says “Oh, well, guess this proves we should cancel the trilogy about Macaroni Marshmallow Vanillaland.” On the other hand, many writers of color I know feel the immense weight of expectations on their shoulders. If they don’t sell, then their narrative–their background, their right to tell stories–gets written off as unviable.

Third, industry gatekeepers–publishing houses, agents, editors, workshop directors–can and should do more to reach out to writers of color. Make it clear that you’re seeking diverse stories, and then back it up with book deals. Hire interns from marginalized backgrounds. Pay them, or let them work remotely–because unpaid internships are an economic privilege inaccessible to many young POC trying to break into the field. Hire editors of color so that diverse stories don’t get whitewashed into oblivion. Hire artists of color to design covers. Invite more writers of color to teach at workshops so that younger, POC writers can have role models. I could go on.

We’re good at what we do. We’re out there, and we’re hungry. Give us a chance.

I don’t want to discount the fantastic work that’s being done on this front. I know that my own publisher–Harper Voyager–has made a concentrated effort to publish diverse stories, and the 2017/2018 lineup shows: Nicky Drayden, Maggie Shen King, and S.A. Chakraborty make their debuts this year, and The Poppy War will be out next May. I’m very proud of the work they’re doing. We still need more of it.

I don’t think any of these arguments are outlandish or particularly controversial. They’re inconvenient truths to people who don’t want to acknowledge them. But the response I received on Twitter was for the large part overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes Part II of this post very weird. 

The majority of criticism I’ve gotten comes not from white people in publishing, but from Asian activists. It’s hard to sift out their particular argument from the vitriol, but I’ll try to summarize it here:

I am an Asian woman dating a white man. This makes me an unfit advocate for Asian-Americans for a myriad reasons–because my “racial preference” displays internalized self-hatred, because my “refusal to date Asian men” proves that I only advocate for “toxic” Asian females, because I “talk Asian but sleep white,” and because I’ve submitted myself to a “colonialist” relationship with a “weaboo” with an “Asian fetish.”

I’m not going to link to the threads themselves here. I don’t have much respect for people who post anonymously, or people who sift through my personal history to make irrational and ad hominem attacks. You can surely hunt it down yourself if you’re curious.

But I will respond to the argument, because I think that this ideology is so terribly hurtful and dangerous.

I understand where it’s coming from. Trust me. I am aware of how my relationship with my white partner is situated in a long history of a) the emasculation and demonization of Asian men, and b) oppressive relationships between white men and Asian women. I understand the instinct to believe that an Asian woman who dates a white man must hate her own race. I get that.

But see, you don’t get to tell me who I should date. You don’t get to make assumptions about my “racial preferences” when you don’t know me, you don’t know my boyfriend, and you don’t know a thing about our relationship. That’s misogynistic. That strips me of my agency because it purports to make my personal decisions for me.

I don’t have to prove my activism is genuine by dating someone from my own race. That’s…well, that’s just honestly pretty stupid.

You certainly don’t get to tell me that I have “no standing” among Asians if I “sleep white.” I advocate with my words. I don’t advocate with my vagina.

My boyfriend and I aren’t naive about the ways that race affects our relationship. We know we come from different locations, that he doesn’t understand many of my experiences. Of course there are slip-ups! Of course there are awkward run-ins with family! But we’re talking through them. We’re learning. We’re moving forward together, because we love and respect each other, and that’s all that should matter. I can very much assure you that he is not a domineering Pinkerton, and I am no submissive China doll.

I love the Asian men in my life–my father, my brother, my closest friends–and I will advocate for them. I also love my boyfriend because he’s kind, cute, thoughtful, and makes me laugh. Love is love is love is love. Don’t make this a forced choice between them, because that’s a foolish binary. Don’t create divisions where none need exist. You’re better than that.

First Panel! World Fantasy Con (November 2-5)

Announcement: I’m going to be on my first panel at World Fantasy Con in San Antonio this November! Look for me at “Kitsune & Dragon: Thoughtful Approaches to Alternate Eastern Asias,” along with Fonda Lee (whose work I ADORE, especially Zeroboxer.)

Here’s the full panel description from the WFC programming team:

China and Japan each have extensive histories and pantheons that have always been somewhat neglected by the West. From Lafcadio Hearn’s first efforts at bringing Japanese folklore to American audiences through to Lian Hearn’s current series of tales there is much to find in Japanese culture. China had years of M. P. Shiel and pulp era “Yellow Peril” stories that prevented foreigners from really learning what fabulous stories were possible. From Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung through Hughart’s Master Li novels — have we barely scratched the surface of what fantastic Chinas there could be?*

At first glance: It’s telling, I think, that the only examples given of “fantastic Chinas” are by…well, not Chinese or Chinese-American authors. (I mean, are we not even going to mention Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings?)

I’ll never argue that Chinese stories should remain exclusively in the domain of artists with Chinese heritage. But looking for good representations of fantasy China through a Western gaze has meant a long string of disappointment. See: White Savior Wet Dream “The Forbidden Kingdom”, that Matt Damon embarrassment “The Great Wall”, and…well, Marvel’s “Iron Fist.” I’m increasingly frustrated by Western authors who use China and its history as plot ornaments, but put absolutely no effort into researching the complex social, cultural, and gender dynamics that accompany flashy set pieces like kung fu and Taoist imagery.

So if anything, I’m excited to geek out about the authors with Chinese heritage who are putting out incredible versions of a fantastic China. (Is here the right place to drop the hashtag #ownvoices ?) Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series, Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, and just about everything by Cindy Pon come to mind. I should also mention Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, which just came out last week–I haven’t gotten the chance to pick it up, but it looks absolutely incredible.

And then there’s The Poppy War, but that won’t be on shelves for another couple of months. 🙂

Tl;dr–my motherland has such a beautiful, expansive cultural history, and I’m very glad I’ll get the chance to discuss the beautiful stories spun by my fellow authors. I’m also going to rant more than a little bit about romanticized, exoticized, and simplified visions of China in Western literature–but you can hear that out of my mouth in November.

*I’m a bit disappointed this description doesn’t say anything about the Koreas, Mongolia, or Vietnam, which have their own complex cultural histories but have been represented in deeply problematic ways in Western fiction.


reading report: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan) 

There’s been so much buzz about about this book, especially since its movie adaptation was announced, that I felt obligated to pick it up. I’m very excited that a Hollywood is making a big budget film starring almost exclusively Asian actors–I love Constance Wu, as is my duty, and I think the film will give some awesome exposure to some very deserving Asian actors.

There’s a lot to love about this book. It satisfies that schadenfreude-based desire that compels me to read through DailyMail (what has Bella Thorne done now) on my Snap feed and flip through People magazine whenever I see it. I’m so far removed from the world of wealth and opulence Kwan describes that I can’t help but press myself up against the glass and gawk inside.

But Crazy Rich Asians isn’t as shallow as I expected. For one, I appreciate the dropped in commentary on bourgeoise society’s prejudice towards Asians, even crazy rich Asians. (Here Kwan writes with a sense of gleeful retribution–I count at least three scenes in which the Asian protagonists face discrimination and deal with it by slapping white people over the head with insane amounts of money.)

But more importantly, this book also highlights something that has often frustrated and embarrassed me about Chinese society: the fact that rich Chinese seem to associate “class” with imitating British and American culture. We meet a rich Singaporean woman whose dogs are named Trump, Vanderbilt, and Astor. We meet Singaporean heirs named Astrid, Alistair, Cassandra, and Camylla. Even in a world where Asia is churning out more and more millionaires every year, English language and culture remain the markers of the elite.

I see the same white mimesis and obsession with European luxury in my own thoroughly middle-class Asian community. My relatives fawn over Prada, Gucci, and Coach bags. Everyone I know has sent kids to be educated in the US or the UK. When I taught debate and rhetoric at elite Beijing private schools, my Chinese students all had bizarre Australian or British accents–the products of English tutors imported from the West. They wear Adidas, Nike, and Marc Jacobs. They vacation in Paris and London. In China’s upper class, the best new accessory is English culture credentials, which Kwan’s characters flaunt constantly. I’m glad to have picked up a book that brutally mocks that mimesis.

I should mention that I am not enamored with the writing style. The prose often gets so clunky that it throws me out. The POV shifts are confusing and inconsistent. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural–no one talks in complete sentences like that. We’re inundated with useless adverbs. We get hit so hard over the head with exposition that it feels like a bat. And the ending–my God, what an implausible, Hollywood-dramatic ending. (But was it satisfying? Was it a spectacle? Yes.)

But let’s not get too hung up on the quality of the prose. Honestly, this is one of those books that propels itself along by the reader’s sheer fascination with the subject material. Reading this book is like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians–it’s hard to look away. So who am I to judge? The author’s only duty is to keep the reader hooked, and I read all the way to the end.

reading reports: The Waking Land, All the Light We Cannot See

On my Habitica (task management RPG, highly recommend) checklist, I’ve set reminders to read a chapter of good fiction and a chapter of nonfiction every day. I don’t always manage to read both, but I do try really hard. I find that keeps the writing mind humbled and inspired, and it keeps the academic mind asking questions. This also means I read a lot of books, which I’ll blog about below because I really like to talk about books!

So! Spoiler alerts!

The Waking Land (Callie Bates)

This book features one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen on an fantasy book. Seriously. Just look at it. I want to steal this cover and make it my own (except my character cannot control nature, so alas.)


I was really excited to read Callie Bates’ debut. We share an agent, and I very much trust Hannah’s taste in books. Three chapters in and it was clear why Hannah liked it–revolution, reclamation, and political intrigue are big themes in The Waking Land and I am all for it.

This is a story about Stockholm Syndrome and conflicting loyalties. I admit I was frustrated with Elanna’s (MC) inner dialogue for about the first third of the book–she seemed to want one thing one minute and another the next. First she wants to escape Eren, then she wants to go back, then she wants her parent’s love and approval, and then she resents them. But upon reflection, what else would you expect from a young girl whose world has just been upturned? She doesn’t know what she wants. She shouldn’t know. She ought to be grappling with her loyalty to her adopted country, her love for her parents, and her innate affinity for her native land. She wouldn’t be a real fully formed human being if she wasn’t. We’ve grown so used to expecting the protagonist to have a singular, firm goal (and indeed, that’s what we’re taught at writer’s institutes) that we forget that sometimes things are far more complex. Callie Bates pulls off that complexity elegantly.

Misc–I’m not super well-versed in European history, but I’m pretty sure at least some of this is inspired by the fight for Irish independence. The names–Fionnlach, Ruadan–and native language of Caeris (“mo cri, mo tire, mo fiel), read as Irish to me, though of course everything lies behind a veneer of a fantasy.

Overall, a really nicely written debut. It’s rare to find a European YA fantasy that feels as fresh as this one does. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the rest in this trilogy.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

I try to make my way through the list of Pulitzer prize winners every now and then, because I don’t have any academic training in English, so I rely on awards lists to show me the standard of good writing/what I should aspire to imitate. I also really, really like World War II.

This is a book about records, radios, and beautiful things in the worst of times. The plot takes a while to materialize, but when it does, it’s breath-taking. I didn’t mind the slow pacing because I was just so struck by the immense attention to detail. Doerr’s sentences are packed in with context-specific objects and images (“Men brawl over jobs outside the Zollverein gates, and chicken eggs sell for two million reichsmarks apiece, and rheumatic fever stalks Children’s House like a wolf”), which reveals what must have been a monumental, intricate research effort. Most of the prose describes setting. Wartime France becomes alive. I am a history geek, so I reveled in it.

I’m sure there’s not much praise I can give this book that hasn’t already been written. I loved the young characters–brilliant, conflicted Werner and brave, curious Marie-Laure. They are both intricately sketched, courageous, and resilient, and I nearly cried when they finally found their ways to each other. Well. The last three chapters basically had me crying from through to the end. Please go pick this up if you haven’t already.

Non-fiction Stuff

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the non-fiction books I’ve read in the past month. Some of these were for thesis research, and others were just for fun.

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Herbert P Bix): a fascinating biography of Japan’s wartime emperor, his childhood and education, and his hand in Japan’s wartime decision-making (read: war crimes.) My knowledge of Japanese history is largely filtered through Chinese history, so it felt good to expand my horizons a little.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Chris Hedges): I think that everyone who writes fiction about war, especially SFF writers, should read this book. It’s a short, easy read about how war seduces and gaslights, how it draws us into nationalistic fervors and destroys culture. Our excitement over heroic myths and bloody battles is an impulse that needs some serious, critical examination.

The Miracle of Dunkirk (Walter Lord): confession–the Boyfriend and I read this as preparation for watching Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (which was awesome), because we are nerds and that’s what we do. I really liked how the book was structured as an amalgamation of anecdotes and different perspectives (much like Nolan’s film) rather than any linear narrative. If you want a nice jumping in point for WWII, this might be the book for you.

In other news, I just saw some cover roughs for The Poppy War and I am SO EXCITED. I told my editors that the cover needed to depict WAR WAR TERRIBLE WAR, and that’s what we’re getting. Get pumped for the final image!