The Terracotta Bride is a novelette set in the Chinese afterlife, in the tenth circle of hell. It has some steampunk aspects but the afterlife setting gives the story a mythic feel.
Siew Tsin is the second wife in the household of a middle-aged business man whose family still burn many offerings to keep him wealthy in the afterlife. The tenth circle of hell is reserved for those who have paid for their sins and are getting ready to move on to the next life, but many residents don’t want to sever their link to their old self and memories, so they bribe hell officials to let them stay. Siew Tsin died young and was then sold to her husband by a well meaning uncle. She’s never really had a chance to discover who she is or what she wants from the world, and that discovery is really at the heart of the story.
When her husband acquires a third wife, a terracotta bride who is an almost perfect replica of a real woman, Siew Tsin’s emotions awaken and she feels herself drawn to the bride. But her husband’s first wife has other ideas.
The story is quite a short one (around 11,000) and only available as an ebook (which isn’t my first preference) but I loved the premise of the story . It makes a nice change to see these ideas explored in a non-western cultural setting. I found some of the dialogue a bit sparse at the start of the story, but it gets going once Siew Tsin’s relationship with the new bride begins to develop and the other characters becoming more solid and fleshed out. The ending is unexpected but gave me space to reflect on the choices Siew Tsin makes, so I think it sets the themes off well.
I’d definitely give Zen Cho’s longer work a look after this, though I think some parts of this story could have been developed a little more. The story explores ideas about selfhood, fulfilment and the role of women, so it does manage to pack in a lot in a small space. And I could look at that cover all day.