Review: Beneath the Burning Wave - Jennifer Hayashi Danns
Genre: Fantasy Published: Harper Collins UK, August 2022 My Rating: 3/5 stars
Beneath the Burning Wave is an experimental YA-fantasy novel that I deeply respect and appreciated for everything it set out to do, but fear will only fit a very niche audience. As much as I hoped to be part of that niche target, I struggled more than I had expected to, leaving me with an overall mixed experience with this book.
What I loved:
We follow the story of Kaori and Kairi, twins who grow up on the ancient island of Mu, where magic flows and “gender is as fluid as the waves”. All their lives, they’ve been haunted by a generational prophecy that predicts they’re doomed to bring their community to ruin. One of them is born of water, one of fire, and natural rivalry will bring the island to its knees in flames and waves. Caught between their natural rivalry and ingrained tradition, and their desire to let peace and freedom rules, Kaori and Kairi must make a decision that will shape the future of their entire community.
I’m always supportive of unique and memorable fantasy, that dares to explore important themes, and take risks in the process. Especially with the YA-age-range, too few authors and publishers dare to push boundaries (even when it comes to diverse fiction), because it’s “less marketable”. Beneath the Burning Wave takes that risk and tells a compelling story in a completely unique way. The use of neo-pronouns (using the gender neutral “mu-mem” instead of he/she/them) throughout the entire book is something I’ve never seen done before in YA-fantasy. It slots well into the rest of Mu’s interesting world, infused with elements of lesser known Egyptian and Japanese mythology to create a setting and culture I kept wanting to explore further. I hope the later instalments in the series will continue to expand upon that.
What I didn’t love:
As much as I was invested and intrigued by the worldbuilding, I cannot say the same for the storyline and the characters. Mostly, this was due to the overwhelming feeling of confusion I felt throughout my reading experience. Beneath the Burning Wave is not an easily accessible novel, largely due to an already confusing story, but also due to some of the writing-choices. As much as I liked the idea of the neo-pronouns used, it did add to my confusion to distinguish (already similar) characters. Especially when the word “mu” is used to refer to “he”, “she”, “they/them”, but also the island itself. The fact that many have similar names (such as Kaori and Kairi) added to my confusion, and frankly made it impossible for me to listen to the audiobook alone, as I was constantly confused as to who was speaking.
As a small disclaimer: language-barrier may have contributed on my part, as English isn’t my first language. The Dutch approach to pronouns is different from the English and doesn’t even have the equivalent to a “they/them” pronoun, so this may have made it grammatically harder on me as a non-native speaker.
The second thing that confused and bothered me was how “binary” the story felt, despite its emphasis on (gender-)fluidity. Although there are no gender-pronouns and characters can switch between different the two, there are quite distinct male and female gender-roles within the story, that go beyond biology. There’s still an interesting discussion to be had here, but it didn’t feel quite like the complete fluidity that was advertised…
Overall, I feel like Beneath the Burning Wave has the potential to be a great read, if you know what you’re getting into. If you’re a YA fantasy-reader, with an established interest in this topic and are open to more experimental style of writing; give this a try. If you’re looking for an approachable “introductory” fantasy-story, this may not be the perfect match for you.
Thanks to Harper UK for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Find this book here on Goodreads.