Bite-size Books: Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth

Book cover: Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth - Cassandra Khaw text title and silhouette of city skyline in redWho needs enemies with friends like Rupert Wong’s? Following his unfortunate involvement in dragon murder and celestial war, Rupert’s is being seconded to London ‘for his own safety’. But his new Greek employers are at war too – and nobody is betting on Rupert surviving it.

Ah, Rupert Wong. There’s so much I shouldn’t like about these novellas, and yet they are irresistibly horrible. I thought briefly that working for the displaced Greeks might mean less grue – they at least seem to prefer well-made baklava to Scottish rump – but you should never underestimate Cass Khaw’s ability to explore new avenues of squick.

The Ends of the Earth kicks off with a horrifyingly funny episode of what is effectively MasterCannibalChef; where the loser, inevitably, becomes the next set of ingredients. No fear – Rupert is the best cannibal chef in town – but even he feels bad for his sweating opponent. It’s an early reminder that Rupert’s employers are not possessed of human emotions or attachments. Rupert is their employee at best, their property at worst, and as tasty as the next human they’ll have for dinner.

So it’s highly suspect when they send him to London ‘for his own safety’ (cue much grinning, as I do love a story set in my home city) – especially as this will see him working for the very pantheon he recently embroiled in celestial conflict. Thankfully, Ao Qin is already on trial for his assault on the Erinyes, and the Greeks appear unaware or uncaring of Rupert’s involvement. They have other wars to worry about.

I love the way Cass Khaw is mashing up her mythologies for the Rupert Wong series, and I adore that no matter how brutally disgusting Rupert’s experiences become, there’s a humanity and emotional truth underneath to play with your heart strings. Here Khaw eviscerates any romantic notions about family relationships in the Greek pantheon – all so neatly married off, and so full of spite and loathing. There’s nothing pretty about Hades’s abusive possession of Persephone, and no guard rails on the violent attraction between Demeter and Poseidon. At best, the male gods come across as mobster kingpins with adolescent impulse control; at worst, as self-absorbed, uncaring monsters.

The goddesses, on the other hand, are magnificent. Rupert is soon divested of any illusions he may have been hanging on to about self-determination and free will, bent to the sometimes careless, sometimes focused coercion of their divine manipulation. This is still an improvement on his interactions with his colleagues and the Sisyphean gambling ring, where bets are laid based on the flawed prophecies of immortal eviscerations (don’t ask. Honestly, you don’t want to know. And if you read it, you’ll find out).

The Ends of the Earth is gang warfare immortal-style, but it also explores the very idea of what it means to be a god – and what it takes to become one. The Greeks aren’t at war with any ancient enemy, but a new idea that has caught like a virus in our entirely modern context. We’re soon deep in the world of treachery and betrayals, with no back left unstabbed.

I somehow never twigged in Cannibal Chef that Rupert is functionally immortal. He’s so attached to his idea of himself as still being alive; but here he can and does survive things that make it clear that he may be messily alive, but he’s capable of returning from the dead. This just means he has more opportunities to suffer unspeakable horrors… poor Rupert.

Ironically, this means I found Ends of the Earth even squickier to deal with than Cannibal Chef (even if it did make me laugh out loud on public transport when it all came down to tentacles). It’s just as fast-paced, even bigger in scope and arguably more complex. Dark, brash, and messy, it’s another fascinating car crash of a read. Khaw’s control of language is hideously evocative as usual, and I remain in awe of her endless inventiveness. I’ll cheerfully read any future escapades Rupert Wong is put through, however much I’ll always squirm as I do so.