Rupert Wong did terrible things to get where he is. Now he’s paying the bills by cooking people for his ghoulish employer, and atoning for his sins by doing paperwork for Hell. But the Dragon God of the South has a third job for him, and there’s no saying no to an angry dragon… even when it could start a divine war.
Cassandra Khaw is one of those authors I hear great things about, but hesitate to read. I was pretty sure Rupert Wong was too horror to be my cup of tea – but when Subjective Chaos calls, I do as I’m bid (a bit like Rupert and the Dragon God of the South, only with fewer threats and a lot less damage to my living quarters).
…so of course Rupert Wong knocked my socks off.
Don’t get me wrong, this is hella gory and frequently downright sick – although my sense of humour is pretty dark, I was still surprised to find that cannibal jokes go over okay with me when cannibalism doesn’t (it’s one of those things I’m seriously queasy about; I blame SPOILERS Life of Pi and Jamrach’s bloody Menagerie). Thankfully there’s also no on-page cannibalism here (no, really. I mean, yes, there’s lots of people getting eaten. But when they’re being eaten by undead apparently it’s completely different in my head. Go figure). Instead, there’s laughs to go with the wall to wall squick.
Maybe it’s inevitable that a former triad gang member living with an undead flesh-eating girlfriend (effectively housebound, as she doesn’t like eating everybody in sight. It’s messy, for a start) would require a narrative voice laden with world-weary arid snark. What I really didn’t expect was the sheer glory of Cass Khaw’s writing.
Adjectives fail me, to be honest – it’s got rhythm and it’s shamelessly, exuberantly colourful. There are combinations of nouns and adjectives here that I never expected to see and arguably hope to never see again. Words can be so… graphic. And crunchy. Also evocative, which isn’t always a good thing. Because the concepts here are as provocative as the many and terribly specific ghosts of Malay culture (and beyond; part of the point is that Kuala Lumpur’s underworld is very diverse these days).
For example: the novella opens with undead babies discussing their desire to unionize – consider it a warning shot across the bow; if you’re uncomfortable with it, go no further – Rupert Wong is not for you. Stick with it, and you’ll get an unlikely gore-soaked thrill ride as Southeast Asian mythologies meet the criminal underworld, with Rupert Wong trying to stay alive as he gets caught in the middle.
Cass Khaw gives you just enough information to get by (it helps that Rupert Wong is explicitly narrating to a clueless white person; OH HELLO), but doesn’t waste time making sure you keep up. I ended up a bit confused in places (I’m still not quite sure why the war started, if I’m honest), but enjoyed the ride enough that I didn’t really care. I never really cared about Rupert himself, either – he’s almost bland, with little beyond his determination to stay alive and do right by his girlfriend as motivations – but he’s an entertaining companion for the outrageous proceedings.
Ultimately, this is still very much not my cup of tea, but I had a good time reading it. And… my cup of tea or not, I really want to read anything Cassandra Khaw writes. HER WORDS ❤