Queer Reading Pleasure: Three Novels by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

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One afternoon in August, I was fiddling with a course syllabus when an avalanche of messages and twitter alerts pinged through my phone. Online fandom pals, publishing newsfeeds, and real-life friends were doing a big “!!!” all over the place. The top independently owned manga and light novel publisher in North America, Seven Seas Entertainment, had announced their acquisition of Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s wildly popular novel series The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System (2014), Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (2015), and Heaven Official’s Blessing (2017)—and thanks to their adoption of prior fan translations, the books would begin coming out as soon as winter.

Originally appearing as serial fiction through JJWXC, all three webnovels are fantastical stories set within wuxia or xianxia worlds—and as danmei books they’re, obviously, super gay. Since those initial publications each has also been adapted as either an animated or live-action series, most notably The Untamed (陈情令), which landed with a splash among Anglophone audiences in 2019. So, considering MXTX’s already boisterously-engaged transnational fandom, the simultaneous releases of these first volumes in English on December 14th made for a day triple-circled in hearts on tons of queer readers’ calendars.

Therefore I ask, what better books could there be for a Queering SFF reading series to kick off the new year than these?

As for the basic details of Seven Seas’ editions: The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System features translations from Faelicy & Lily, with original cover and interior illustrations from Xiao Tong Kong. Meanwhile, both Heaven Official’s Blessing and Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation are translated by Suika and editor Pengie—and the covers for Heaven Official’s Blessing are from 日出的小太陽 (@tai3_3) with interior illustrations by ZeldaCW, while Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation‘s covers are illustrated by Jin Fang with interiors by Marina Privalova. Also, one overarching editorial choice I’ll shout-out with gratitude as a regular reader of translated fiction: the retention of Chinese honorifics, titles, and relational signifiers as cultural-historical necessities. (They’re important, and I’m looking right at you, Netflix.) Though the first volumes all released together, the series follow different schedules going forward with Scum Villain‘s final volume releasing late 2022 and the others scheduled to wrap mid-2023.

Now, if you’re new to these kinds of stories, there are folks whose expertise I’m glad to boost for your perusal—whether that’s basic background on “Boys’ Love Stories, Queer Fantasies, & Communities We Create,” or queer Chinese media across the mainland and diaspora, or doing cultural studies between and within Asian contexts. For our big gay MXTX book club, though, I’m presuming a reasonable familiarity amongst us readers so we’re able to instead straight-up revel in the queer pleasures of horniness, melodrama, and (sometimes messy!) community these novels offer.

After all, I’m a big proponent of taking our pleasures seriously—especially when those pleasures are so often dismissed as fundamentally un-serious, frivolous, or even obscene in the ways BL tends to be.

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But what about me, then—how’d I end up with “10am: bookstore for MXTX!!” penciled onto my desk calendar for the 14th?

First off, I’ve been a dedicated consumer of BL for around twenty years. The reasons are the same ones you’ve probably heard before from other gays who grew up through the blossoming of digital access to transnational queer media: these comics and shows offered me the stories of gender, eroticism, and longing where I first felt genuinely comfortable. And as regular readers of these columns also know, I do not vibe with hardline separations between “high” and “low” art, the pulp and the prestige, when it comes to my readerly practices. I prefer a buffet-spread of queer texts, within which the ‘feeling’ genres (romance, erotica, melodrama, horror) are given equal pride of place. Treats feed the soul as much as the belly, right?

Which brings us around to the last months of 2020: a year deep into the global COVID-19 pandemic. One of my closest friends had been nudging me to watch The Untamed, which he’d finished over the summer; I’d also been seeing tons of other writers in the sf community going wild for it. So, with the semester finished and my burn-out meter in the red, I gave the show a try… and I adored it. Twisty political machinations, prescient critiques of “the crowd,” the passions and tragedies of the main couples’ arc, side-pairings (and throuples) ft. exquisitely-cursed misery, a cast overflowing with gorgeous men: The Untamed gave me all the flavors I’d been craving.

As the year dragged onwards, I leaned harder into joy and pleasure as guides. Being a doctoral candidate undergoing qualifying exams—while gritting my teeth through rising global tides of homophobia and transphobia—the absolute necessity of pleasure was really, suddenly obvious. I watched more BL (and adjacent) shows than I had in a long time, chasing the satisfying balance of smarts and horniness, tenderness and melodrama: Heaven Official’s Blessing, Word of Honor, Manner of Death, Strangers from Hell, Advance Bravely, Sleuth of the Ming Dynasty, and several more crossed my screens. Engaging with the fandom afterwards further buoyed me—new friends, great art and fic, the comfort of being amongst folks on my same tip.

In the meantime those friends had started saying, “you know, you’d appreciate the novels even more.” I’d gone so far as to download the fan translation of Heaven Official’s Blessing, because the animated series had me thirsting for Hua Cheng and Xie Lian’s epic love-story. The likelihood of a major press being willing to publish these novels in English felt slim on the ground, though. After years of queer works being passed over for official release, especially those with explicit (messy, weird) fucking on the page, most of us are reasonably jaded.

Then the Seven Seas announcement burst across our feeds. The publishers confirmed they’d definitely be keeping the sex scenes, as well as the bonus chapters, and employing illustrators and translators from within the fandom. While the results of these editorial choices are inevitably mixed—some readers might prefer one translation style or artist to another, for example—I couldn’t help but appreciate the impulse to uphold the communal practices of fandom. And since the release I’ve been feeling a real vindication with the success MXTX’s novels have found… aside from, so far, most critic’s willingness (or, unwillingness) to engage with them as novels.

And witnessing that seeming-reluctance made me, a person who’s received so much enjoyment from the adaptations of MXTX’s writing, even more eager to treat these texts and their pleasures seriously. What follows from here is a trio of review-essays, something along the lines of a book club conversation for readers diving into these stories for the first time. As I wrote to another friend while discussing doing this short series, “We can be a little deranged and gross and funny about our smart shit, because that’s what being gay is like.”

Whether it’s the canonical heft of Luo Binghe’s dick, or the grist-mill of gossip that destroys Wei Wuxian’s first life, or the “it’s fine!” room-on-fire energies of Xie Lian, I’m here for the entire spread of delights—and I hope you’ll join me.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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