Author: Zen Cho
Publisher: Self Published
First Published: March 10, 2016
Genres: High Fantasy, Queer, Science Fiction
In the tenth court of hell, spirits wealthy enough to bribe the bureaucrats of the underworld can avoid both the torments of hell and the irreversible change of reincarnation.
It's a comfortable undeath … even for Siew Tsin. She didn't choose to be married to the richest man in hell, but she's reconciled. Until her husband brings home a new bride.
Yonghua is an artificial woman crafted from terracotta. What she is may change hell for good. Who she is will transform Siew Tsin. And as they grow closer, the mystery of Yonghua's creation will draw Siew Tsin into a conspiracy where the stakes are eternal life – or a very final death.
The Terracotta Bride was a surprising little novella, it had a lot going for it for such a small package and can easily be read in one sitting. It was imaginative and gave me a lot to think about, I’ve never read anything like it and I honestly wish that it could have been a little longer.
Due to the length of this story, I was disappointed to find that the eternal life conspiracy mentioned in the synopsis was pretty lacking. There is a brief explanation of the theory and what it could do but it was both confusing and did not feel like it was developed enough. The idea is interesting and it could have been a good plot point in a longer story, but for a short like this, it just felt unnecessary. There is also a distinct lack of character development for exactly the same reason, the characters are a little stiff and there is not much growth outside of the mild romance, which I must stress that this isn’t really a romance novel.
“Rebirth entailed a true death, the severing of one’s memory and the loss of one’s self.”
Now what the story did right, however, was the world-building and exploration of philosophical topics about traditional Asian marriage, religion, the afterlife, and reincarnation. The afterlife in this book draws a lot from Taoist beliefs about ancestor worship and the cycle of reincarnation, contrasting this version of the afterlife to the Christian one. Siew Tsin died young and found herself married off to the richest man in Hell, where the souls of the dead bribe their way to a comfortable afterlife–avoiding atonement for their sins and dodging the wheel of reincarnation as long as they can.
So what would hell look like for a young Asian woman? Apparently, it would look a lot like the real world, trapped in a marital tradition where women are often sold off to an older patriarch and join a household with multiple wives. While she’s been given another chance at life after death, is it really the kind of life that she would want to live? It’s no wonder that Siew Tsin finds companionship in the strange new bride that her husband brings home, a terracotta bride crafted to learn and become a perfect wife.
The Terracotta Bride is an absolute gem and an exemplary work of short fiction by a refreshing new voice. Besides my mild gripes about the length and a few editing errors this novella was damn near perfect and was hard for me to put down.