by F. C. Yee
Book 1 of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
I don't know what I was expecting when I went into this book, but it certainly was much more delightful and fun than I'd anticipated. While the voice of Genie Lo's first person POV might have felt a bit immature, I sincerely appreciate all the humor and sarcasm--truth, there are some moments when the comical nonsense is overdone, but I'm not complaining, really. As far as the story goes, at times I felt like I was watching/reading a cross between Inuyasha, Dogma, and various other modern adaptations of Journey to the West mashed together. There might have even been a lot of American pop culture references, though I probably would have been MUCH more impressed had Yee included some Chinese pop culture references as well.
But seeing as we are looking through the eyes of uber millennial Chinese-American Genie Lo, I can kind of see the voice working.
While there have been a numerous amount of movie and television adaptations of Journey to the West or a simple Monkey King retelling, I think this is the first time I've stumbled across a book retelling based on the legend. So, needless to say, I was very, very intrigued.
For anyone not familiar with this tale, Journey to the West follows the adventures of a Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who is tasked by the heavens and his king to travel west in search of a set of holy scriptures, which is said to be crucial in helping to alleviate the world of suffering. His disciples include the infamous Monkey King, Sun Wukong; the Piggy Demon, Zhu Bajie; the River Demon, Sha Wujing; and Xuanzang's white horse, previously an exiled dragon prince. As the tale goes, each of Xuanzang's disciples has been selected for this journey by the Siddhartha Buddha because they each have terrible sins to atone for, and therefore must guard Xuanzang on his journey. Along the way, the five monks go through a lot of trials and tribulations, testing their resolve and determination.
It's actually a really, really long tale, but one of the most well-known legends in China.
Getting back to this book, Epic Crush was written in a chaotic fashion, but it still managed to draw me in, especially since Genie, her friends, and her mother were portrayed in a way that I really could relate with. Genie is a very American, Chinese-American teenager living in modern-day America, under the close scrutiny of her very traditional Chinese mother. We get to see glimpses of the affect culture has on Genie and her mother amidst their behavior towards one another, from the high expectations and immense pressure that Genie's mother puts on her, and Genie's latent need to seek approval and acceptance from her strict mother even in spite of her more independent, gruff personality.
Of course, heart-rending, heart-warming, self-revelation journey about a teenage girl, this book is not.
Because this book is more about Genie's destined path in life based on who she was in a previous life. Basically, as Genie herself finds out, the fate of of the Bay Area is in her hands alongside that of a strange kid claiming to be the great Monkey King of old Chinese mythological lore. Demons have been loosed from the Eighteen Levels of Hell, and the gods have decided that it's up to Genie and her Monkey King partner, Quentin Sun, to take care of the problem.
So... in a way, this book is sort of a hero's journey, following Genie as she relearns her magical abilities from her previous life of fighting evil demons. Truth... I was quite floored by just exactly who Genie was in her previous life and chuckled my ass off. Sorry Genie--you're a wonderful character, but that plot twist was gold!
Meanwhile, this book touches upon so many tangents that I'm not entirely certain we get a clear focus on any of the significant conflicts at all. And the ending, truth be told, might have been a little rushed, and very deux ex machina... if only because this is, after all, a book based on Chinese mythology, and the gods and goddesses tend to have a hand in everything, while they torture the poor characters who are stuck on Earth who have to do their bidding. In other words, the gods and goddess want the Earthly beings to take care of themselves, but they aren't above interfering to get the job done if the need arises... and only when they feel inclined to do so, which is usually whenever a story plot backs itself into a corner and needs divine intervention that had been denied for the past forty-nine episodes of a series, or two and a half hours of movie, or three hundred pages of book.
One thing that I already knew about Chinese mythology and their gods... a lot of times, they act even more human than we expect them to, seeing as there's equal opportunity corruption, shirking of duties, irrational expectations, and childish behaviors. In Chinese mythology and religion, gods, goddesses, and even Buddha are not infallible after all, and, as this book shows, can all be kinda douche-y.
Anyway, a few quibbles stood out to me, but might just be my own personal bias or whatever.
For instance, I had a hard time believing that Genie had no idea who the Monkey King is. Maybe it's a generational thing, or maybe it's a Westernized upbringing. But Journey to the West and the Monkey King is such a widely told legend in China, and there have been adaptation after adaptation, both old school and modernized, that it's hard to believe that Genie had never even heard of him. Even my youngest brother, who has the least Chinese knowledge in my family, understands references to the Monkey King, even if he doesn't know the story or the details.
I would have expected Genie to at least be familiar with the name even if not familiar with the legend. As Quentin puts it, it would be like American teens NOT knowing who Batman is... although I probably wouldn't have used that kind of comparison--Batman and the Monkey King are both two very different kinds of characters.
But I suppose if she never took any interest in her own culture, that might be possible.
The other quibble I might nitpick is how all the Chinese gods, goddesses, and even the demons all speak colloquial English without fail. I might overlook that, because maybe our author just didn't want to go through the whole "he said in Chinese" narration--I understand that sometimes that can get a bit tedious. Or maybe it's an unofficial understanding that the gods and goddesses just know how to blend into whatever setting they land in, whether it be ancient historical China, or modern day Bay Area California. And so they somehow know how to speak flawless English with all the right slang and using all the most up-to-date references and such. Who knows?
But being that Genie spends a good chapter ruminating about Quentin's perfect handle of the English language, I guess I'd have thought that she'd make note of whether someone was speaking English or Chinese at the time. Or the fact that all of the very Chinese gods, goddesses, and demons spoke modern-day American English.
On the other hand, I DID like the random thrown in Chinese phrases, denoted in italics. And for those Asians out there who are interested, apparently the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin chooses to make her random exclamations in Cantonese instead of Mandarin, unlike the other Chinese characters in this book. Just pay attention, if you understand Chinese or Cantonese, you'll note the pronunciations and romanizations are different.
My final quibble with this book is the extreme romanticizing of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. While I like the idea of a the Monkey King posing as a high school boy to implore Genie to help him with his demon hunting, I'm having a hard time reconciling the Monkey King I'm familiar with from the tales, the movies, the television series, with the immature teenage romantic depicted in this book. In fact, I'm not even entire sure that romance was really necessary in this book (and I'm a hopeless romantic who reads romance like I breath air).
The Monkey King is a self-important, egotistical, arrogant being who loves himself, and loves his little monkey followers, loves his monk master and monk siblings, and loves his Goddess of Mercy... but not in a romantic sort of way. Sun Wukong loves those he considers his or his family, but romance has always been beyond him, and as a monk in training, romance is even a strictly forbidden emotion. In Buddhist teachings, human emotion oft times leads to suffering, and the only way to achieve Nirvana is to completely dispel all human emotion from one's being.
This means that the Monkey King, his monk siblings, and his master, aside from setting off to obtain the Holy Scriptures from the West, are also on a journey to obtain the highest level of monk-hood.
I'm not saying that the Monkey King would be completely immune to human emotion, and in fact, the whole point of the journey is to obtain that higher state of being. So there will be trials and tribulations that test his ability to reach that higher level of Nirvana.
The impression I get from this story is that the Journey to the West adventure has already come and gone, and it's been centuries since. I would have thought the Monkey King would be a little wiser than a teenage boy and show more maturity. Yes. The Monkey King was always a jokester and troublemaker, but his actions were always explained away by his lack of understanding about society's expectations, as well as the rules and regulations of the Earthly and Heavenly worlds, or even Hell.
But by this time in his life, after centuries... I wouldn't have expected him to so readily develop feelings for a teenage girl, even if she were the reincarnation of one of his best demon fighting partners. Even if, setting aside the age difference, I wouldn't have expected the legendary Monkey King to be acting like an immature teenager at all, especially after the journey he went through with his monk master and monk siblings to reach that higher level of monk-hood.
Epic Crush aside, this is actually one of the hardest concepts for me to get behind--a supernatural being who has lived for hundreds or thousands of years, who's seen and experienced so much, showing up in a YA novel, acting like an immature child, and romancing main teenage hero/heroine, who, by the way, could very well pass for a great-great-great-great, many times great, grandchild... at best. I don't care that you still look like a sixteen year old boy or a sixteen year old girl... you're not, so don't act like one. It's hard to get behind, which is one of the biggest quibbles I have with this book.
Of course, my familiarity and impression of the Monkey King is obviously a personal opinion. And over the years, the entire Journey to the West and the Monkey King stories have been recreated in rather romanticized ways in different, more modern movies. And, spoiler alert, in the end, there has always been a rather bittersweet ending to those romanticized notions.
Anyway, that's kind of my two-cents... or twenty, seeing as how I've rambled on.
Nonetheless, this was a rather fun read and I may or may not continue with the next book. I DID enjoy Genie Lo as an individual, though she's a lot more prone to violence than I'd have expected. And I also hoped to see more of her friendship with best friend, Yunie, just because we see so few positive female relationships emphasized on.
I would recommend this book for fun, or if you're interested in Chinese mythology. But I wouldn't go by Genie's snarky retelling of the Monkey King's tale, if I want to be honest. It's not a terrible one and touches upon all the most important events that happen to Sun Wukong before the events of Journey to the West, but her rendition might be a bit more comical than it needed to be.
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