Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Book Review: An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating diverse characters, interesting premise

Cons: can get very emotionally heavy at times 

The China of this future has a Bounty of unmarried men. Lee Wei-guo is a 44 year old gym owner and coach and the general of the Strategic Games army Middle Kingdom. He’s finally saved enough money for a dowry, but only as a maximum - a third husband. His matchmaker has only found one interested family. The Wus looks good on paper, but Wei-guo’s two dads aren’t convinced. And they’re right. May-ling’s first husband is an undeclared Willfully Sterile, a gay man who, if outed, would lose contact with his son among other punishments. His brother and May-ling’s second husband, Xiong-Xin (who prefers to be called XX), is a potential Lost Boy. He’s an autistic computer security genius with whom May-ling is terrified of having a child through their mandated weekly conjugal sessions, because if their child is also a Lost Boy, the child would be taken from them. As Wei-guo gets to know the family and decides he wants to join it, politics and their personal problems make that outcome less and less likely.

The book shows four points of view, starting with Wei-guo’s and extending to May-ling and her husbands. It’s great seeing the four people, how they interact, why they act the ways they do, what they believe and feel. There’s so much complexity to the situations presented in the book that it’s great seeing the same problems from various viewpoints. It allows you to sympathize with everyone, even as they annoy, betray, anger, and love each other. 

The world-building in the book is top notch. I was impressed with how carefully the author approached this potential future. The government is integrated into so many aspects of regular life, in ways that make public dissension difficult to impossible. Maintaining an aura of party support is second nature to all of the characters, as is reading between the lines of what is acceptable to say/do to understand what people actually mean. It’s a world that becomes more terrifying the more you learn about it. I was glad there was a section explaining how the Helpmates (the women who meet once a week with men to work off sexual tensions) were organized. There isn’t much mention of life outside of China, though the China First party line does frown on foreign wives, if not state sanctioned foreign sex workers. No issue is clear cut. While homosexuality is treated like a genetically inherited disease, those who declare themselves Willfully Sterile and get sterilized have a place in society. The book shows that many gay men hide their status, not willing to leave families or be seen as other by society. It’s a complex issue and it’s handled with the recognition that there are many sides to all difficult issues (even if some of those sides are abhorrent to us and the protagonists). 

I was also impressed by the clarity of language used to explain the thoughts that went unspoken and the acts that went undone. There are no pulled punches over how emotions work and the difficulties encountered when people with different ways of interacting are forced into close relationships. XX’s annoyance at being second guessed by his brother and wife, the difficult choices May-ling must make with regards to her marital vows when considering having XX’s child, Hann’s being a pawn in the games of his company partners, create three dimensional people with problems that seem simple from the outside, but have no easy solutions.

There is a sex scene between May-ling and XX that’s very uncomfortable to read. While it’s graphic, it is also important for understanding a lot of the interpersonal problems the family has.

Elements that I thought were window dressing for the purpose of world-building, for example the strategic games Wei-guo plays, turned out to have a major impact on the story later on, so read carefully.

Obviously I can’t speak to how accurately the author grasped the modern Chinese mindset.

This is a brilliant book.

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