Old School Wednesdays is a regular Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
Title: Bride of the Rat God
Author: Barbara Hambly
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Publisher: Open Road
Publication date: First published 1994
Paperback: 336 pages
Chrysanda Flamande was the sultriest vamp of the silver screen in Hollywood, California, in the year 1923. Then an elderly Chinese gentleman warned her that a trinket she’d worn in her last movie had marked her to be the bride of an ancient devil-god of Manchuria. Now the Rat God is stalking closer, and Chrysanda is discovering that there’s no mousetrap big enough to keep her from being dragged unwilling to the altar!
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): ebook
This is another entry in a series of Old School Wednesdays posts, brought to you by the amazing folks who supported us on Kickstarter. As one reward level, backers were given the opportunity to pick an Old School title for one of us to read and review online–Bride of the Rat God was selected by Lace. Thank you, Lace!
This book was unexpectedly fun! Also, problematic!? It’s my first Barbara Hambly novel and I really enjoyed how this felt both old school (first published in 1994, that’s already, ugh, 24 years ago) in terms of writing style, and modern in how it depicted super great female characters. Bride of the Rat God is a mix of early Hollywood homage and criticism, a blend of Horror and Fantasy with elements from Chinese mythology and with an added touch of understated romance.
The official blurb will make you believe that this book is about Chrysanda “Christine” Amande, a sultry Hollywood star who has been cursed to become the bride of the Rat God but that’s not quite right. The star and main character – and viewpoint narrator – is her sister-in-law Norah. Norah’s husband and Christine’s brother died during the Great War and Norah had been living in England in dire conditions until Christine invited her to come over to Hollywood. Now, Norah is Christine’s assistant, dog sitter, companion and jack of all trades, trying to keep a tab on all of Christine’s lovers and generally hoping the star will not overdose on cocaine one day.
Christine is starting a new movie, which is a mess of cultural exoticism called The She-Devil of Babylon when one of the stuntmen is horribly killed. It soon surfaces that there is something afoot about this death, ominous signs and shadows and night visitors terrifying Norah. Speaking of cultural exoticism and appropriation, Christine is obsessed with Chinese culture and has three Pekinese dogs (Chang Ming, Buttercreme, and Black Jasmine) who are main characters in the novel, each with a very firmly personality as described hilariously by Norah.
Christine also happens to own an ancient Chinese necklace which is how she has become the target of the Rat God – anyone woman who wears the necklace is supposed to be a sacrifice to the God. We know this through an elderly Chinese gentleman wizard who once fought the Rat God and is now trying to protect Christine and Norah.
The horror and gothic elements are effective and genuinely scary. The look at old Hollywood and its pulpiness, parties and glamour that disguise truths no one cared to know: drugs, abuse of power and more.
The best thing about The Bride of the Rat God though is truly its female characters, Christine and Norah and their friendship. The former could easily have become a trope herself: the vapid, empty-head, damsel in distress. But Christine turned out to be a good friend to Norah, sexually empowered and damn well capable of taking care of herself in a fight. To that same point, Norah’s voice was a mix of amusement and quietness, her grief for her husband’s death palpable. Norah’s arc was super cool too – from falling in love with cameraman Alec – a steady, quiet, friendly beta hero – and then becoming herself a screenwriter. I love understated, quiet romances and the one between Norah and Alec was truly lovely.
Now, with regards to the Fantastical elements that draw from Chinese mythology. Hambly walks a very – very – fine line here. On the one hand, there is an examination of the very problematic way that Hollywood has indeed appropriated and exotified the East in harmful ways. Similarly, it is made very clear that Christine’s understanding and love for “Chinese culture” is based on superficial thin understanding and this is made even clearer when they meet and get to know Shang Ko, the Chinese wizard who will help them vanquish the Rat God. We get to see Shang Ko’s story, his past, learn about his family in a way that I felt was respectful if slightly tropetastic.
On the other hand, in the end, I believe the line is crossed because it is still the white lady who is cursed and the other white lady who saves the day with the help of the Wise Old Chinese Man who becomes courageous only because the white ladies’ courage inspires him. The tropes are all here and if in a way, they fit the pulpy format that pays homage to old Hollywood movies, I also don’t think the story is 100% successful in subverting them.
There is also another problematic element here. The first person to die because of the curse was a male stunts man – he dies because he wore the necklace during a scene. Now, you will remember that the Rat God kills women who wear the necklace. So where is the logic here? Well you see, the stunts man was gay and he died because… and this is made quite clear in the book, gay men are kinda like women… and I quote:
“The young man who counterfeited a woman in more ways than one”.
Where does that leave me? I enjoyed the book for many reasons but was grossed out by these elements aforementioned leaving a bitter aftertaste in the mouth.
Rating: 6 – I enjoyed it with reservations