“Book Review: Never Have I Ever”
Reviewed by Allison Manley
Modern magic, young love, and Filipino folklore in this debut short story collection
Before I heard of the story collection Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap was unfamiliar to me. And it’s a shame. She’s a Clarion alumna; has stories in Tor.com, Nightmare, and Uncanny; and was a Locus Award finalist (among other honors). Thankfully, I follow Small Beer Press and found out about Yap’s debut collection, which was released February 21. I devoured it over three days.
Never Have I Ever’s thirteen stories feel youthful. Most of the stories are about people college-aged or older, and it feels distinctly millennial to me, both in these young characters, as well as in form. Yap is at times playful in her language – take, for example, the magical superhero story “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing),” in which the narrator Alex shares context around her currently-asexual love life:
“I figured I was just burned out on human interactions, after a spectacularly social college life left me drained and hollow. At least I learned I did not like the Sex Thing much. (Fun fact: not all magical girls are virgins.)”
Most of the stories are urban fantasy, set in the real present-day: there’s always some magical element, like a mystical creature or witchcraft. And – speaking of those magical elements – most of them are based on Filipino folklore. Indeed, most of the stories are either set in the Philippines, or the characters have some relationship to the Philippines. Among the lot of magical beings, there’s a kappa, a kind of water demon that, in usual circumstances, is not to be trusted; Malakas and Maganda, a man and woman at the heart of a creation myth; and a bakunawa, a serpentine moon-eater (that I won’t talk more about for fear of spoiling the story it appears in).
A handful of these stories address systemic inequality (more subtly than many terrific SFF stories do). The first story, “Good Girls,” is mostly set in a “reformation” school for girls, but it’s really more like a prison for young women, some of whom have been violent, some of whom have done (or simply thought) something outside the status quo for women. “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” compares witchcraft and queerness. (Of note: there are a handful of queer characters in this collection). In “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child,” innocent youth, one by one, arrive at Gimokudan, a limb-like afterlife; they were murdered by a police officer who believed (or at least told himself) that he only wanted to make the world “free of crime and the scum of the earth.” And in “Only Unclench Your Hand,” a young woman hits the nail on the head when she mentions how her well-connected neighbor is relatively safe from violence: “…here, we learn justice isn’t usually for us.”
“Good Girls” is one of the standout stories for me, partly because of its feminist foundation, but also because of its manananggal, a grotesque kind of vampire that severs herself from the top half of her body to prey on organs and fetuses. The final story, “A Canticle for Lost Girls,” also lingers in my memory; in it, three girls reforge their fallen friendship over a terrible and grisly secret. A much more cheerful story, “A Spell for Foolish Hearts,” a witchy romance, was also a fantastic I-don’t-want-to-go-to-the-bathroom-until-I-finish-this story.
While two of my top three stories feature witchcraft, don’t let that give the impression that the non-witchy tales are worth skipping: “Misty” has an urban legend at its core, and it heartbreakingly explores the way children cope with trauma. “How to Swallow the Moon” is the queer high-fantasy love-and-redemption story I didn’t know I needed. And “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing)” is a superhero-friendship story that I suspect will be among the well-deserved fan favorites.
There are no bad stories in Never Have I Ever. Not only are Yap’s stories eminently readable, but they are also re-readable: she layers information and depth page-by-page, so reading these stories a second time gives you a new perspective on early pages. Hopefully the next book by this vibrant writer is already in the works.
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Genre: Short Story Collection / Mixed-Genre
Print Length: 248 pages
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