By Jadie Jang
In Jadie Jang’s “Monkey Around,” urban fantasy is the milieu — specifically the richly diverse, politically activated, increasingly gentrified San Francisco Bay Area of the #Occupy era — and a spiraling murder mystery set in a sprawling community of supernatural shapeshifters is the game.
It’s a thick broth of a book, full of myth, youthful angst, vivid settings — yet it remains light and fresh on the palate. It’s politically provocative, culturally complex, intriguingly fantastical — but it’s also a stylish and fast-paced read.
At the narrative center of it all is Maya McQueen — a single, introverted, twentysomething activist with a barista day job who happens to also be a powerful, shapechanging “supernat.”
Yet despite coming equipped with all this awesome, Maya’s personal life is sort of a mess. She’s a hapless dream date with a box of unrequited crushes and no clue how to flirt, despite being surrounded by eligible and hunky transhuman bachelors. This gal’s standing around at a banquet starving to death.
She’s also an orphan, clueless about her past, and oblivious as to the true nature of her powers — despite having a beat-up old copy of “Journey to the West” literally fall off the shelf and onto the floor in front of her every time she walks into her apartment.
Yep, Maya is the Monkey King, that famously irascible trickster and enormously powerful demigod popularized in the aforementioned 16th century Chinese novel. Possibly related to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, the Monkey King is wild, pugilistic, fiercely independent, loaded with magical talents, and lacking a lot of emotional nuance.
No surprise that Maya tends to blunder through relationships, and barge headlong into situations that are, thanks to her plethora of superpowers — including shapeshifting, turning her hairs into an endless supply of handy tools, turning invisible, turning into vapor, flying on clouds, etc. — only occasionally way over her head.
Maya’s charms are abundant, her flaws endearing, and you can’t help but root for her (and her ferocious sense of justice) as she sleuths, noir-talks, battles and more-than-occasionally blunders through a fast-changing urban landscape of secret societies and tongs, magical coffee shops, learnéd human allies, street gangs, rowdy protests, swoon-worthy slam poets, nonprofit magazines, hard-rockin’ ukulele bands, and a dazzling bestiary of supernatural beings who walk among us in human form.
There are were-tigers, bajang (a Malaysian hobgoblin), genderfluid kitsune (a type of nine-tailed Japanese fox spirit), Filipino vampires (aswang), monkey changers, were-dogs, were-jaguar … all refreshingly sourced from a wellspring of world mythology beyond familiar Eurocentric tropes of lycanthropes and fey folk.
Running through this bubbling potpourri are two powerful currents.
First is the mystery: Someone, or some thing, is killing supernats all across the Bay Area, and draining them of their life essence so that they don’t even leave a ghost behind. It’s grisly stuff, and when the killer is gradually revealed, the terror of that sort of death is palpable.
Secondly is the mission: In parallel to the murder spree, there’s an increasingly desperate battle between street gangs and territorial clans over a magical staff that appears to supercharge the supernatural powers of the particular individuals who wield it.
The nature and purpose of the staff creates a painful dilemma for one of Maya’s cherished allies, one that puts a set of deeply felt values into direct conflict with each other — the sense of duty that comes with a life of cultural and political activism, on the one hand; on the other, the youthful imperative to be free, fulfilled, and unshackled by the obligations of the world.
In navigating these treacherous waters, Maya brings the Nancy Drew and the Mary Sue to great effect, even as her all-too-human warmth and fallibility make her highly sympathetic.
Therein is the appeal of the supernatural, superhuman protagonist — they amplify the best and worst of humanity and play our qualities out at scale, in living color.
In that regard, Maya McQueen would make a great serial protagonist — and indeed there are several dangling plot threads that demand a sequel: The identity of the real villain behind the murders remains elusive. And, the mystery of who Maya really is (or rather, the promise of her own self knowledge) is unresolved. The two may be intertwined, and we’ll just have to wait for Book 2 to find out …
“Monkey Around” author Jadie Jang — the semi-pseudonym of Bay Area author, activist and community organizer Claire Light — makes this story feel real and vivid because she has lived the life that Maya and her comrades inhabit: Starting nonprofits to confront social inequity; pursuing the activist lifestyle and political idealism; showing up at protests; hanging out in coffee shops and going to see bands and readings.
It’s a wonderful bit of wish-fulfillment — wouldn’t we all love to live in a magical milieu that coexists with our own mundane reality? — grounded in a hard-won truth: We have to fight for the lives we want to lead.
We love Maya McQueen not just because of all her awesome superpowers, which we emulate in our dreams, but because she’s just as flawed and all-too-human as the rest of us.