In Burning Roses, S. L. Huang treats a fairy tale as merely the prologue to the rest of a life. We meet Little Red Riding Hood, Rosa, as an older woman already looking back on her life. The famous encounter with the wolf at her grandmother’s house is long behind her—far from the guiltless little girl we know, Rosa is now a woman who has loved and lost, built and unbuilt a family, and now reckons with the full narrative of her life. As her story nears its conclusion, she wonders if she still has time to change it and find redemption.
Rosa’s life has been built upon prejudice against the Grundwirgen, humans who magically transform themselves into animals. This prejudice’s complexity reflects the messy web of bigotry that readers encounter in their daily lives. It was first kindled in her by her mother’s beliefs and later perpetuated as Rosa grew into a hunter of Grundwirgen, using her grandmother’s rifle in an effort to avenge her death at the hands of a Grundwirgen wolf. He killed her senselessly, despite Rosa’s kindness. “How we are treated is what we become,” said the wolf. It is no shock, then, that Rosa became a hunter.
Yet Rosa resents this part of her that has been fueled by bitterness and disgust towards the Grundwirgen for so long. She knows and repeats to herself, “Grundwirgen might have animal forms, but they are just the same as humans, just the same, no difference…”
Although Rosa has always been motivated by justice, her sense of justice, at times, was incorrect or misguided. Rosa knows “her bigotry had destroyed everything good in her life, and still she couldn’t twist free of it.” In many ways, she feels trapped by her past, believing she must be a bad person undeserving of love because of all the pain she’s caused to innocent people. Indeed, “she could not rail against a destiny she had inflicted upon herself.”
When she eventually runs away from her past life, family and all, she finds Hou Yi, a hero and hunter in her own right. “Until Hou Yi, she’d destroyed everyone she’d sworn loyalty to.” But when she chooses to work alongside Hou Yi for true good, their growing friendship offers Rosa a chance to turn her life around.
Together they hunt sunbirds, gigantic flaming creatures burning villages and towns to the ground. These creatures are unlike Grundwirgen, without an element of humanness to them: they’re “half bird, and all fire.” Huang’s use of flame as a “devouring monster neither Rosa nor Hou Yi could kill” encompasses the conflict between these heroines and their pasts—both obstacles are ephemeral, physically unbeatable, and yet they color and taint every part of their surroundings. While fighting enemies entirely beyond their control, Rosa and Hou Yi hope to win by relinquishing control over their own ability to do evil and instead give themselves over to this righteous cause.
Both motivated by personal quests for redemption, Rosa and Hou Yi save strangers in order to make up for the loved ones they’ve personally betrayed. “Rosa felt the clarity of it—diving to place herself between innocents and danger, the relieving certainty that she’d die doing something clean and right.” Rosa believes she has deeply hurt Mei, her wife, and their child, Xiao Hong, by leaving them behind. Hou Yi similarly believes she has failed her wife, Chang E, and the apprentice, Feng Meng, who was like a son to them both. Feng Meng has even gone so far as to align himself with the sunbirds, in direct opposition to Hou Yi and all that she’s stood for.
Yet as Rosa and Hou Yi tell one another their stories, Huang raises questions as to how their actions have truly been perceived. Rosa inflicts feelings of guilt upon herself, but does her family bear the same ill will towards her? Hou Yi believes Feng Meng turned against her, but does he believe she was the one to turn against him? Their perceptions of their pasts confuse their interpretations of who they think they are. “I would have killed you myself, if we had met back when I was the hero and you were the villain,” Hou Yi says to Rosa. “But you think too much of yourself. Now we are just two old women… Old women who have hurt their children.”
Huang’s characterization of both Rosa and Hou Yi is impeccable. Rarely in fiction or fairy tales do we see two protagonists who are queer, older women of color. Both women are a complex synthesis of fairytale archetypes—hero, hunter, and villain are each represented at different points in both their lives, and they reveal their multiplicities to one another in long conversations over the course of their journey. Burning Roses highlights the joys in peeking into older characters’ lives—far from dismissing or simplifying them, the story pulls generously and compassionately from their lifetimes.
As they travel closer to the island where the sunbirds dwell and where Feng Meng waits, Rosa rails against a past that tells her “this is who you are.” Disbelieving, yet still determined to change, she pushes herself to the edge of everything cruel rooted in her, faces it head-on and asks instead, “who do you want to be?”
This turn toward the future opens a door in Rosa and Hou Yi’s redemption arcs. While our modern fairy tales end in “happily ever after,” Burning Roses focuses more on the bridge between now and then—what is it about love, about companionship, that aids us in becoming better people, setting us on a path to peace? With the magic of transformation always available and the power of old love often hidden in plain sight, Huang delivers one of the best additions to the fairy tale genre in recent years. Burning Roses presents a compelling tale that favors change, the chance to forgive, and—universally—the desire to be forgiven.
By S. L. Huang
Published September 29, 2020