Review for Wolf at the Door by J. Damask

wolf-at-the-door

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

Note 2: I’m reviewing the book based on the 2016 edition published by Gerakbudaya, the regional publisher.

My Summary: Jan Xu is part of a clan of Singaporean Chinese Lang, or wolf-people, and an ex-vigilante who fought against supernatural beings run amok in the city. In recent years, she’s settled into a life as a mother of two children. However, that life is threatened when her estranged sister, Marianne, comes back to visit with a new boyfriend in tow. Jan’s instincts tell her that this boyfriend is dangerous, and Marianne is behaving strangely as well. Something is amiss, and Jan may be the one who has to set things right.

Review:

I’ve been feeling the dearth of Southeast Asian fiction in mainstream U.S. publishing, so I remedied that by finding indie and self-published writers from Southeast Asia. The first I came upon happened to be Joyce Chng (J. Damask is a pen name she uses), so I put her stuff on my TBR. Wolf a the Door is my first exposure to her writing, and it’s a great place to start. Urban paranormal fantasy with Asian werewolves set in Singapore? Bring it.

I’ll just note here at the beginning that there were some typos here and there that should be fixed if the book gets republished. There were also a few places where the language felt off, but since I’m not familiar with English dialects outside of Standard American English, I can’t really say for sure whether they were grammatical errors or just dialect differences. It wasn’t major enough that it caused any problems in reading comprehension, so it’s not a huge black mark or anything. Just thought I’d note it for the sake of being thorough.

Now, to the actual content. One of things that really got me excited was that right off the bat, the narrative acknowledges the multicultural landscape of Singapore. A lot of times fantasy doesn’t really make room for cultures other than the dominant one (read as: white culture, in the case of fantasy set in the U.S.), so it’s nice to see fantasy that shows the coexistence and interactions of different mythologies and folklores. From naga people to apsaras to fox women and fairies and vampires, the different ethnic groups that live Singapore all have their own supernatural beings that live among the regular humans and mingle with one another. These beings are referred to as Myriad.

You can’t understand the urban landscape of any cosmopolitan city like Singapore without acknowledging history, particularly migration and the formation of diasporas. In Wolf at the Door, diaspora and migration history are as much a part of Jan’s identity as they are for normal humans, which lends a heightened sense of realism to the worldbuilding. Her identity as Lang is contextualized and linked to her Chinese heritage. Her celebration of holidays with family carry meaning for her not only as a diasporic Chinese but also as Lang. Mid-Autumn Festival for Chinese werewolves? I love it.

This is probably a personal thing for me as someone who speaks two Chinese languages (Taiwanese Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien), but all the instances of code-switching in the book made me happy. People who don’t know any better think of Chinese language and culture as a monolith, but there are so many regional/linguistic differences, and so-called Chinese dialects are rarely mutually intelligible. Mandarin may be the most widely spoken Chinese language, but a large number of diasporic Chinese across the globe are from the southeast, particularly Guangdong and Fujian, so they speak languages like Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, etc. Hokkien is the most commonly spoken language in Taiwan after Mandarin, and the same is true in Singapore, so it was cool to find connections to the story through the use of Hokkien. I saw ang ku kueh mentioned and freaked out and got a craving for them. (They’re red tortoise cakes, made with glutinous rice flour and sweet filling, often red bean paste.)

It was also nice to have a story where nonwhite people are the majority because it’s easier to decenter whiteness. In fact, the main antagonist is a white British guy, and I was like yes! Because let’s be real, white British guys are romanticized in media a lot despite their role in being the face of colonizers to about half the world. The appeal of the British accent (Received Pronunciation, to be specific) and mannerisms has everything to do with power and prestige and little to do with the inherent superiority of Britishness.

One of the prominent themes of the book was hybrid identity, which carries a double meaning for Jan because not only she is part of a diaspora that has mixed with other cultures, she is also a werewolf living among humans. The werewolf aspect brings a very visceral element to that hybridity. The authors description captures with a vivid and poetic precision the feeling of being a wolf who sometimes wears a human skin.

Race and analogies of race become an issue in the story because the antagonist is advocating for the “purity” and dominance of wolves, with gross eugenic implications as it concerns mating and breeding for werewolves and their relationships with humans. Thankfully, the grossness of the idea is directly called out within the narrative.

Aside from issues of race and species, the book also focuses on family ties, which are central to Chinese and Lang culture, and Jan’s friendships with other Myriad. The narration alternates between past and present, connecting the dots between events and people, cause and effect. These flashbacks provide insight into Jan’s growth into the person she is at the beginning of the narration. Although the Myriad are not really human, they ares still people, with the emotional depth and psychological complexity of humans. Their lives don’t just revolve around their supernatural forms and powers; they also have more “mundane” lives and concerns: careers, hobbies, relationships, and so on. This balance between the magical and mundane was something I really liked about the story.

Jan’s identity as a mother and middle aged woman is refreshing, as it’s usually young people in their prime who get the spotlight and the heroic arc. You could say that she used to be the archetypal YA heroine, but has since matured and settled down. However, that doesn’t preclude her being a compelling protagonist or a person capable of heroism. It’s just that her perspective and motivations are different from those of a teenager. She is a refutation of the idea that marriage and motherhood make women weak sideshows to men or cannot coexist with depth, individuality, and agency.

The one thing that bothered me was the ableism that popped up a few times. Although depression was treated with greater sensitivity, psychosis wasn’t as much. There was a link made between schizophrenia and ideological fanaticism. Although schizophrenia does lead to paranoia and delusional thinking, having schizophrenia doesn’t make you evil. You can be paranoid and delusional without being bigoted and violent. Unfortunately, the equation of mental illness and moral depravity is pervasive, so scapegoating mental illness is common.

Recommendation: If you’re tired of lily-white werewolves and the idea that nonwhite people are less relatable and less human that mythical creatures, Wolf at the Door is the book for you, killing two birds with one stone, and then some.

P.S. The cover art is gorgeous. There are two different images, one on the front cover and one on the back. I wish publishing had more of these kinds of illustrations, drawn from scratch and really specific to the details of the book’s setting, characters, genre, etc., instead of stock photo manipulation that only vaguely captures the essence of the story.

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3 thoughts on “Review for Wolf at the Door by J. Damask

  1. Okay, I’m convinced to pick this up at some point. Yes to code-switching. The Philippines also has multiple languages across regions, so it’s really common for people to code-switch if you visit a different area/island too. I’m not knowledgeable enough to code-switch but some of my cousins from different islands can.

    Liked by 2 people

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