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Friday, July 29, 2016

Crescent Moon and the Lunar Race

Crescent Moon - a manga series about the Lunar Race which may be based on the Hindu Myth of the Chandravansha. Plus the fascinating story of King Ila, the progenitor of the Chandravansha and a brief look at Fruits Basket, another manga series.

I revisited the manga series 'Crescent Moon' by Haruko Iida, which I first read many years ago. The shojo manga series was published in the year 2000 under the title Mikan no Suki (literally An Incomplete Moon).

I thought the story line and concept was brilliant - successfully combining the modern everyday world with a mystical world of myth and folklore. In fact, it was comparable to Fruits Basket, another shojo manga series published around the same time. 

But Crescent Moon didn't do so well on the market. Only 6 issues were released compared to 24 issues for Fruits Baskets (overdone much). I think it was because of the confusing layout and poor editing - even I found it quite difficult to read. Which was a pity because the premise is fascinating.

A girl called Mahiru Shiraishi, who seems quite ordinary apart from a talent for bestowing good luck on whoever she touches, encounters a group of remarkable looking boys. Surprisingly, two of the boys start shadowing her and eventually she finds out that they think she is the one they had been looking - a descendant of a mythical princess.

The boys themselves are more than meets the eye - much more. They are members of the Lunar Race, shape-shifting reincarnations of legendary creatures : a vampire (Nozomu), a werewolf (Akira), a tengu (Mitsuru) and a kitsune (Misoka). They called themselves the 'Moonlight Bandits' because they are team of cat burglars - breaking into museums in search of an ancient gem called 'Teardrops of the Moon.' The boys appear to be orphans and live on their own in the penthouse of an expansive looking condominium in Tokyo.

Mahiru is in the centre. Clockwise: the werewolf, the kitsune, the vampire and the tengu.
The Moonlight Bandits can only transform into their powerful demonic or fae forms during the full moon i.e. about 3-4 nights in a month. However, physical contact with Mahiru - even a touch is enough - enabled them to shape shift at will, even when the moon is waning. Mahiru forms a bond with the boys and decides to help them to recover the Teardrops of the Moon, the true source of their power which they hope will restore the dying Lunar Race.

The Moonlight Bandits are not alone, they have an organisation behind them called The Moonshine Cafe. This is a wildly popular Cafe by day and a nightclub by night, right in the heart of Tokyo. Just like Trick McCorrigan's inn in Lost Girl, the Moonshine cafe is a front and it exists in two different worlds and could be a portal to the Fae world. The cafe is run by someone called Oboro, who appears to be one of the royalty of the Lunar Race.

The story does not make it clear why no attempt was made to recover the Teardrops of the Moon before but it's possible that the reincarnations of the Lunar Race never managed to meet up with a true descendant of the princess, until Mahiru came along.

In the story, Mahiru falls for one of the Moonlight Bandits - Mitsuru, the tengu. This is surprising, as Mitsuru was against her joining the group in the first place. He is also the least likable among the four, having been brought up by humans who 'betrayed' him, he hates the human race. Mahiru, follows the classic trope of a girl falling for the 'poor broken boy' whom she hopes to heal through 'true love.'

The enormously popular Fruits Basket follows an almost similar plot. Tohru Honda, an orphaned and very ordinary but warm and kind-hearted girl decides to be housekeeper for a family of extremely wealthy boys (and girls) in exchange for food and shelter. But the children of the Sohma family are cursed, they are reincarnations of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The curse on the Sohmas make them unable to have physical contact with members of the opposite sex (normal humans), if this happens, they turn into their zodiac animal forms. This can be either laughable or traumatic.

Fruits Basket follows the same trope as Crescent Moon, the plain but hardworking and lovable Tohru Honda, falls for the 13th member of the Sohma family, the outcast Cat (who did not make it into the 12 year Chinese Zodiac).

Yuki Sohma (the Rat) and Kio Sohma (the Cat) have a crush on lovable Tohru Honda, in the Fruits Basket manga.

The story of the mythical princess in Crescent Moon
Back to Crescent Moon: The story behind the princess.

A long time ago, a young fae prince (the manga calls him a demon prince but I think fae is more appropriate) became trapped/lost in a palace. A young princess heard him crying and helped him to escape. Before he left, they made a pact that they would marry when they came of age. The princess grew up but forgot about her promise to the fae prince, or rather she thought that it had all been a dream. But on the day of her marriage, she was abducted and carried away to the Fae Kingdom by members of the Lunar Race. The princess was reunited briefly with the fae prince but she was deeply chagrined by the fact that she had broken her promise to him. Meanwhile, her father and the other lords of the land, raised an army and invaded the Fae Kingdom and killed many of its inhabitants, including presumably the fae prince. The humans also steal the Teardrops of the Moon from the Fae. Eventually, the princess was 'rescued' and reunited with her groom.

One of the interesting characters in Crescent Moon, is a transgender called Katsura Shion, the resident singer/pianist at Moonshine Cafe. His/her fans believe that Katsura are twins, one taking over when the other is indisposed. In fact they are one and the same person, changing genders according to the cycles of the moon. (Bear in mind that a woman's monthly cycle are supposed to follow the waxing and waning of the moon...) Katsura is also known as the 'mirror demon' - no idea why. However, the story does not delve into Katsura's background and the character is not fully integrated into the plot, which is a pity. I can imagine that someone who literally changes from male to female would be very useful to the Moonlight Bandits. The female Katsura could work as the entertainer while the male Katsura could be one of the Bandits or vice versa - it would be an unbreakable alibi.

While researching this series, I was quite surprised to discover that some of the ideas in Crescent Moon may have originated from the Hindu myth of the Chandravansha. Yes, Chandravansha can be translated to Lunar Race or Lunar Dynasty. And best of all, this is not the only noble house in ancient India: There are also the Suryavansha (Solar Race), the Agnivansha (Fire Race) and the Nagavansha (Dragon Race). It might be quite interesting to write a fantasy fiction based on these Houses/Dynasties, a sort of Asian Game of Thrones.

Katsura Shion, the singer who changes gender every month is probably based on the story of King Ila (Eela), the originator of the Chandravansha. While hunting a deer, one fine day, the young King Ila accidently barged into the sacred/forbidden grove of Sharavana, belonging to the goddess Parvati. He did not know that a curse had been placed on the grove - any male entity (even plants) which enters the grove will be changed into a female. Thus, King Ila found that he had been changed into a woman.

He begged for help and Parvati allowed him to be male one month and female on alternating months. But the male and female form could not remember what happened to the other. Anyway, the female King Ila met Budha (this is the son of the moon god, Chandra), married, conceived a child and gave birth to a son called Puruvaras. Puruvaras is traditionally credited as being the progenitor of the Lunar Dynasty. However, I don't quite agree with this, obviously the progenitor of the Chandravansha is King Ila himself.
With Budha's help, Ila then made a horse sacrifice to Lord Shiva,In ancient India, the horse sacrifice is the ultimate sacrifice, not surprisingly considering how noble and valuable a horse is. Lord Shiva accepted his sacrifice and granted him his wish to become male permanently.

Akito held sway over all the zodiac characters... note that Kio Sohma (the Cat) is not in this diagramme.
There is also a character of ambiguous gender in Fruits Basket. This is Akito Sohma, a person we all assumed was a controlling, cold-hearted and cruel young man. Akito held sway over all twelve/thirteen zodiac characters and Tohru tried hard to find out Akito's zodiac sign in order to break his hold on the Sohmas. However, several issues later, we learn that Akito is actually a young woman. Not only does she have a male name, her hair is cut short and she always dresses in male clothes. Apparently she was raised as a boy in order to head the wealthy and powerful Sohma clan. Akito's character devolved in the series, from a powerful enigmatic figure into a jealous, possessive and spiteful person. She was possessive of some of the male Zodiac members and spiteful towards the others, often resorting to violence. She was particularly vicious towards Kio Sohma (Kio is an anomaly; the outcaste Cat who should not exist and Akito intended to lock him up forever) and the beautiful and high-spirited, Isuzu Sohma, whom she probably saw as a rival. Isuzu desperately wanted to break away from the family and like, Tohru, wanted to find a way to break the Sohma curse. I somehow feel Akito's later behaviour is out-of-character and the writer should have maintained the aura and mystery until the end. If character is plot than the plot is flawed.

Anyway, despite it's huge cast of characters, Fruits Basket manages to fully fleshed out most of its characters while Crescent Moon is epic in scope but poorly executed, probably due to flagging fan support.

Akito Sohma is in the centre of the plot in the manga.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Who Is Jon Snow?

Game of Thrones: 

Speculation on the true identity of Jon Snow... Jon Stark, Jon Targaryan or Jon Baratheon?

Apparently, millions of people  watched  the "Battle of the Bastards," the finale of the sixth season of HBO's fantasy television series Game of Thrones, and the 59th episode overall. According to Wikipedia, with some editing:

Jon Snow almost dies in the Battle of the Bastards by ignoring Sansa's advice. He displays the odd mixture of naivety and arrogance that got Eddard Stark killed at Westeros.
In the North, the armies of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (formerly Ramsey Snow) face off in an epic battle for control of Winterfell. In an appaling display of arrogance and naivety (ignoring Sansa's advice not to allow Ramsay to manipulate his emotions and to accept that Rikon's fate is sealed), Jon Snow attempted to save Rikon, who is mortally wounded by an arrow, shot by Ramsay. Jon is alone in the middle of the battle field and in an attempt to save him, Jon's army, largely made up of Wildlings, rushed into battle prematurely and is crushed by the Bolton army. Jon Snow, himself, almost died in this battle.
Sansa Stark and her step-brother/cousin Jon Stark of Winterfell
However, Sansa Stark arrived in the nick of time, along with Petyr Baelish and the Knights of the Vale, and they manage to defeat the Bolton army. Ramsay retreated to Winterfell, where Jon beat him into the mud and locked him up in the dungeons.  Sansa demanded to know where Ramsay is being kept and in a horrifying scene, released his own hounds on him. Apparently, Ramsay had been starving them for almost a week... and the hounds had developed an appetite for human flesh, thanks to the egregious Ramsey, himself.

In Meereen, Daenerys Targaryen refused to surrender to the Masters. She summoned Drogon, her firstborn dragon, and proceeded to  burn the Masters' fleet, forcing them to surrender. Yara and Theon Greyjoy arrived in Meereen offering their ships to Daenerys, and swearing loyalty to help her take the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms.

However, the question which has dominated social media after the show was: Who is Jon Snow? Or more accurately, who was Jon Snow's father? 

We now know that he is not Eddard (Ned) Stark's son as we were led to believe in 58 episodes of the series. Jon Snow is in fact, Ned's nephew, the son of his beloved sister, Lyanna Stark. Well, at least we now know that he is not the son of a common peasant woman and is in fact a Stark on his mother's side. We learn all this through Bran's eyes.

So the popular hypothesis now is that Jon Snow is not Jon Stark but Jon Targaryan, son of Rhaegar Targaryan. I've noticed that in almost every single episode of GOT Season 6, someone mentioning that Lyanna was abducted and 'raped' (aargh, I hate this word) by Rhaegar. A red herring, surely.

According to the 'Jon is a Targaryan' hypothesis, Lyanna Stark, fell in love with Rhaegar Targaryan, who was apparently the most beautiful man alive. As she was promised to Robert Baratheon, Lyanna eloped with Rhagaer to the Tower of Joy. After the birth of her son, she made Ned promise her that he would take him as his own bastard, to make sure Robert did not find out he was a Targaryan. She knew that Robert had vowed to destroy every single Targaryan in the Seven Kingdom.

The beautiful Rhaegar Targaryan and the profligate Robert Baratheon.
However, Robert must have been good looking in his youth as Cercie Lannister was in love with him. 
Beautiful of course, except for the fact that Jon Stark does not resemble a Targaryan at all. Also, plots are never that symmetrical and neat in GOT. I think that Jon Snow is in fact the son of Robert Baratheon. Apart from the dark swarthy looks, there is the ambivalent attitude that Ned has towards him. As in the previous scenario, Lyanna was promised to Robert, but she was secretly in love with Rhaegar. What if it was Robert who forced himself on Lyanna, who later fled with Rhaegar to escape having to marry him? 

Carice van Houten as Melisandre in Game of Thrones
Melisandre is so powerful, she is impervious to cold. She was convinced that Stannis Baratheon would defeat Ramsay Bolton and become Lord of Winterfell. She also perpetrated an unspeakable atrocity by convincing Stannis to sacrifice his own daughter, Shireen, by fire  - an act which doomed him in the end.
I admit that the 'Jon is a Baratheon' hypothesis is based mainly on the Red Priestess Melisandre's visions and actions. First of all, why was she so convinced that Stannis Baratheon would sit on the Iron Throne? Why ally herself with him when there were many other potential kings to chose from? Did she know secretly that a Baratheon would sit on the Iron Throne, after Robert's death? 

In the last season, she was convinced that Stannis Baratheon would defeat Ramsay Bolton and take over as Lord of Winterfell because she saw the Baratheon banner hanging in Winterfell in one of her visions. But we all know that Stannis and his army were routed by the Bolton forces and he was ultimately executed by Brienne of Tarth. However, if Jon Snow/Stark is in fact Jon Baratheon, her vision would make sense. A Baratheon did become Lord of Winterfell...

And a second reason for thinking that Jon Snow is in fact Jon Baratheon is our impression that A Song of Ice and Fire refers to the union of the House of Stark and the House of Targaryan. There is Lyanna and Rhaegar of course, but they were ill-fated. Perhaps the Song actually refers to the union of Jon and Deanarys? This will bring together three great Houses - Baratheon, Stark and Targaryan (assuming Jon is a Baratheon).

The shortfall of this theory is this:  Why did Ned Stark conceal Jon's identity from Robert Baratheon? Was it to protect Jon from the Lannisters? Or perhaps, his sister did not want her son to be raised by a man she despised? Hmm... a disturbing thought just arose... what if Jon is the son of Stannis Baratheon?

However, the more pressing question is, was there a terrible mistake in the casting of Yara Greyjoy? Apparently, this is how the producers of Game of Thrones see Yara Greyjoy...

Gemma Whelan plays Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones
And this is how viewers imagine Yara Greyjoy should look like...Muah hah hah. Incidentaly, my esteem for Theon Greyjoy, whom I used to dismiss each time he appeared on screen, has risen considerably after what he went through at the hands of the monstrous Ramsay Bolton. Theon is a true Ironborn and a greater man than his father or uncle.
Anna Silk plays Bo Denis in the SciFi series Lost Girl

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Asian Festival of Children's Content 2016!

Country of focus: Japan!

Hot on the heels of Pustaka Bookaroo 2016 came the Asian Festival of Children's Content 2016 in May. This time, the country of focus was Japan. I travelled to Singapore alone by bus - a surprisingly comfortable experience except for having to go through the immigration and custom's checkpoint. 

I had a pleasant surprise at this year's AFCC. I knew that Teoh Choon Ean, Heidi Shamsuddin, David Liew and Emma Nicholson would be there, but I did not expect Eric C. Forbes, Senior Editor from MPH Publishing to turn up as well! I found out that his middle name, always represented by a C. is actually Clifford. Anyway, MPH books did well at AFCC 2016 and managed to garner a few awards... as we shall see. Another surprise was meeting Hong Kong-based Nuri Vittachi in person after all those posts about him on Facebook. I'm begining to understand his celebrity. 

The country of focus being Japan, Naomi Kojima was of course one of the main movers behind the scene. She worked tirelessly to put together this amazing exhibition:

So why did I decide to attend AFCC 2016? Apart from attending the line-up of talks, I had something to do - a double book launch. Phoenix Song by Lantana Publishing and the Malay translation, Lagu Cenderawasih, by Oyez! 

Buy book at

The book launch of Phoenix Song and Lagu Cenderawasih took place on 26 May at the Exhibition Room of the National Library of Singapore. Attendance was rather disappointing but Singapore friends, Chow Peng, Soon Kuan and Kim Wah turned up.

We paid a visit to Closetful of Books, the official bookseller where Chow Pang and Soon Kuan bought copies of Phoenix Song. I was heartened to hear from Denise Tan, that Lagu Cenderawasih was selling surprisingly well. Denise had brought in all the Lantana books, including Joyce Chng's Dragon Dancer. Earlier on Joyce and I bought each other's books and got them signed. 

This was followed by lunch with Chen Soon Kuan, Ho Chow Peng and Kim Wah at Saveur Restaurant on Purvis Street. Lunch was not disappointing and the Duck Confit is highly recommended.

Despite the lacklustre book launches, several friends won book awards and lucrative cash prizes. These include: Melanie Lee and David Liew's Squirky the Alien #3, Who Is The Red Commander? which won the Crystal Kite Award.
Melanie and Dave also won the Samsung Kid's Time Award for Squirky the Alien #4 Where Is My Mama? The Squirky the Alien book series is published by MPH Publishing in Malaysia, even though both Melanie and Dave are from Singapore. The books' main theme is actually about being an adopted child.
Old friend, Teoh Choon Ean won two Samsung Kid's Time Award for the following books: Keong Mas, an Indonesian folktale.
Old is Gold, a Malaysian folktale. I think I've read this story before... as a Chinese folktale. Both Keong Mas and Old is Gold are published by MPH.
The big winner was probably Emila Yusof, who won prizes for several of her books, including the best selling Legendary Princesses of Malaysia, published by Oyez!
I had another surprise at AFCC 2016 - a meeting with the people from Marshall Cavendish Asia. She-Reen Wong (Editor) and Lee Mei Lin (Associate Publisher) expressed an interest in republishing my very first book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia! The idea is to re-position the book as a middle-grade crossover YA book, with illustrations in black and white. 

To be re-positioned as a middle-grade reader?
To round up, both Swati Roy and Venkatesh from the Bookaroo Trust turned up on the third day! And thus this picture:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bookaroo in Kuching 2016

I was delighted to participate in the Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival in Kuching in April 2016. For those of you who have never heard of Bookaroo, this is the children's literature festival organised by the Bookaroo Trust, the brainchild of the intrepid duo from India - Swati Roy and Venkatesh M Swamy. I was told that it first started in the city of Delhi in 2012 and then spread to other cities in India, including Pune, Goa, Ahmedabad and most recently, Jaipur. 

The imposing facade of the Sarawak State Library
In 2015, Bookaroo was held outside India for the first time - in the city of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. This was made possible by sponsorship from the Sarawak State Library also known as Pustaka Sarawak. I believe the energetic Jo Williams had a hand in bringing Bookaroo to Kuching. The festival was held, with even greater success, for the second time in Kuching in 2016.

Kamini Ramachandran, Emma Nicholson, Shona Yean and Valentina Triverdi. Photo taken at the Permai Rainforest Resort
My memories of the Pustaka Bookaroo in Kuching are reflected in these photos. Apart from the festival itself (and the children, the books, the writers and illustrators!), I was impressed by the city of Kuching, the leisurely pace of life, the green spaces, and the amazing library which served as the venue.

Kamini having a chat with Swati.
This event also gave me the chance to listen to Pranab Mukherjee, one of the foremost spoken-word poets from Kolkata, India. This is Pranab the poet and storyteller and not the Honorable President of India!  I was astonished to find out that Tagore had written a poem about this part of the world: Malaysia, Java and Bali. Pranab's rendition of Tagore's poem had us all spellbound, including Shona, who actually asked me who Tagore was!

The other participants were: Kamini Ramachandran, story-teller extraordinaire from Malaysia but now residing in Singapore, David Liew, popular Singaporean illustrator known for the Squirky series of books, Emma Nicholson, author and publisher, also residing in Singapore, Heidi Shamsuddin, a Malaysian author known for her 'Doorway Under the Stairs' series, Lim Lay Khoon, a Malaysian illustrator who frequently collaborates with Heidi, Valentina Triverdi, a well-known story-teller from New Delhi, India and Tom and Frane McLaughlin from Australia. Others were, Nor Azah Ishak, a Malaysian author and illustrator, and two award-winning Malaysian story-tellers and authors, Mahaya Mohd Yassin and Hasniah Mamatok. Last but not least, there is the talented young story-teller, Urmi Dasgupta, who came to Bookaroo Kuching with her parents. 
Emma, David Liew and Jo Williams
During the Bookeroolitfest at Kuching , I had the impression that the whole community seemed involved in this event: children, parents, participants, the State Library, and also schools, kindergartens, bookshops, corporate sponsors and so on... my method of storytelling can be described as 'organised chaos'

An important component of Bookaroo is 'Bookaroo in the City.' In this programme, writers and illustrators visit schools in the city to interact directly with children in schools. David Liew came a week before most of us to undertake school visits with great success. Apparently, he made his 'Squirky the Alien' (written by Melanie Lee) books a hit in Kuching. 

The Grand Finale was a party on the terrace outside the library which had a view of the library's garden and a serene lake. The food and especially the dessert of Sarawak-style chendol was scrumptious. This wonderful event was hosted by Pustaka Sarawak.
Valentin, Kamini, Tutu, Shona, Rashidah, Emma and Heidi.

Rashidah Bolhassan (CEO of Pustaka Sarawak), Grace Rongrong and Jo Williams

The CEO, Grace Rongrong, Jo Williams, Melinda Siew and Yitping Tay

Rashidah Bolhassan, the CEO of Pustaka Sarawak with Urmi Dasgupta.
I stayed on an extra day to experience Bookaroo in the City. I was assigned a reading at SK Tabuan in Kuching. Apparently, this is a trust school i.e. schools which have expatriate teachers, to give additional coaching. I had three groups of students read out the parts from a play I wrote, based on Princess Tupai (Princess Squirrel) one of the folktales from Timeless Tales of Malaysia. I learnt something from this experience - never underestimate the power of free gifts! On the trip to the school, I shared an SUV with Tom McLaughlin and Pranab. Tom told us about his upcoming book, about an Aboriginal legend and also the sad history of these people in Australia. Pranab visited the War Museum on the same day and took pictures of a ramshackle POW barrack known as the Punjabi Barrack, for his upcoming book.

Front row: Venkitesh, Jo and Pranab; followed by Tom, Mas and Rashidah.

Many thanks to the organisers, Swati Roy, Jo Williams, Venkatesh M Swamy and the State Library of Sarawak. I'm also indebted to the local children's literature community and supporters: Yitping TayGrace Rongrong, Melinda Siew, Mas Andika Puteri and Rahim Bugo. whose daughter bought a copy of Phoenix Song!