Asian-inspired teen sci-fi fantasy has Xue Shen finding his voice and in his element.
In 2017, author Teo Xue Shen burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel 18 Walls, appearing on the longlist for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and making him the youngest author to have been nominated for the prize. It was clear however, that the writing at the point was very much from a new author, and required more time to fully develop and find his own voice.
Fast forward 4 years, and Xue Shen has released his second novel, this time pitching it at the young adult level, with a similar but distinctly different concept from 18 Walls in Children of the Ark. Much like 18 Walls, Children of the Ark was originally written on Xue Shen’s phone while he was still serving out his National Service, taking inspiration in part from the time spent in Australia doing military exercises.
The world-building displayed in 18 Walls is even stronger in Children of the Ark, taking a step away from the overt military feel of his debut to somehow become wilder, more organic, and often taking our imaginations straight to this , Asian-inspired alternative universe where monstrous animals roam free. The story in short, follows the teenage warrior Zan, part of an underground organisation called ARK as she saves the children known as ‘Pentagons’. But everything is set to change when she meets Ray, a mysterious fighter feared by all.
As our protagonist, Zan feels well-fleshed out, a rough and tough, no-nonsense young woman, skilled on the battlefield while still struggling to make sense of the world and its inhabitants around her. There is genuine enjoyment in her interactions with other characters, not purely to serve narrative purpose, but often deviating into mini side plots that help develop their characters and add little personality quirks that endear us to them.
In terms of the world that Xue Shen has dreamt up, the Forbidden Paths are exotic and visceral, and the language used is very reminiscent of how a dungeon master would narrate a Dungeons & Dragons-style game. The wild creatures that roam the land are fantastic enough to make us feel a real sense of danger and wonder when they appear, and Xue Shen’s ability to write good fight scenes has improved as well, capturing the adrenaline rush of each battle, complete with weapons straight out of a videogame, from tonfas to naginatas to even parangs.
What really makes Children of the Ark work is how original it feels, and how much fun Xue Shen seems to have had writing it, something that comes through in every chapter and leaves us excited to see how the rest of the story plays out. Reading almost like an episodic television series, filled with multiple twists and surprises that Zan has to grapple with both physically and emotionally, Children of the Ark sees Xue Shen finding in himself a a clearer voice, an affinity with the genre, and leaves readers inspired by the sheer possibility that Asian-inspired sci-fi/fantasy has in fiction, and occupies a unique space in the Singapore literary canon we’d love to see more of.
Recommended for: Readers interested in fantastic beasts, underground organisations, and well-developed characters rolled into a single novel.
Children of the Ark is published by Epigram and available here