Representation: Cast of colour
Published on: 3rd August 2021
The debut novel from Jadie Jang is an action-packed urban fantasy delivering a bold new take on the Monkey King in San Francisco - complete with murder and mayhem!
San Francisco has a Monkey King - and she’s kinda freaked out.
Barista, activist, and were-monkey Maya McQueen was well on her way to figuring herself out. Well, part of the way. 25% of the way. If you squint.
But now the Bay Area is being shaken up. Occupy Wall Street has come home to roost; and on the supernatural side there's disappearances, shapeshifter murders, and the city’s spirit trying to find its guardian.
Maya doesn’t have a lot of time before chaos turns up at her door, and she needs to solve all of her problems. Well, most of them. The urgent ones, anyhow.
But who says the solutions have to be neat? Because Monkey is always out for mischief.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~ ‘Maya no’ ‘Maya yes!’
~shapeshifters tied to ethnicity
~If Monkey can, Monkey do, even when Monkey really freaking shouldn’t
~DON’T TOUCH THE MAGIC STICK
~read a book, Maya, just read ONE BOOK–
The last few years, I’ve learned to stay away from Urban Fantasy – we’re not often friends – but Monkey Around sounded so different from the kind of UF I don’t like – and so original in general! – that I just had to take the risk. Shapeshifters with nary a werewolf in sight? Bring it on!
Maya is – well, she doesn’t know what she is. Her eyes burn when someone’s lying, she can turn into just about everything (but her preferred ‘default’ outside of human form is a monkey), and she can summon clouds to fly around the city on. But this isn’t your typical coming-of-age UF; Maya is already an adult and firmly plugged in to San Francisco’s supernatural community. She might never have met another shapeshifter like her, but she doesn’t need some pretty boy to come along and introduce her to a world of magic, thanks.
She’d probably laugh herself off her chair if one tried. And then deck him for being sexist and patronising.
I am very tired of UF characters who let their tempers get away from them, who get themselves into stupid situations and take needless risks because of macho pride BS. Maya absolutely is impulsive – but it’s a impulsivity that’s born out of a compulsion to work mischief, to cause a little chaos, and it’s adorably delightful while giving Jang all the justification required to move the story along. Maya doesn’t brood and she doesn’t angst; she can absolutely be serious about things, but whatever kind of creature she is, it’s clearly something trickster-y.
Or maybe it’s only her; who knows? Maybe if she ever finds another shifter like her they’ll be perfectly serene.
(I seriously doubt it.)
But it makes her stand out from the kind of UF heroes I’m used to with detective stories – because this is a detective story, more-or-less; the book opens with Maya trying to figure out what’s happened to a friend who’s up and disappeared, and in the process, she comes across a hint that there might be another shifter like her about. After spending her whole life not knowing anything about her heritage, it’s a pretty big deal, but gets side-lined a little bit when she’s dragged into a tangle of shapeshifters being murdered and…a magic stick.
It’s a bit ridiculous and silly, and Maya is quick to make fun, until the bodies start piling up.
Jang has put a wonderful amount of thought into a brisk, action-packed story. For one thing, there’s the aforementioned total lack of werewolves: YAY! (I’m sorry, I’m just really, really tired of werewolves.) The shapeshifters in Maya’s world are not just drawn from mythologies that don’t get featured in English-language fantasy that often, they’re also tied to ethnicity – tiger shapeshifters come from places in the world where tigers live, and so on. It’s a small detail, but one I really appreciated: so often in UF the characters we’re supposed to root for/be impressed by turn into big, beautiful predators, and where those animals exist in the wild has nothing to do with the character’s ethnicity. Which makes sense in a story where shapeshifting is a virus that can be passed on to anyone, granted. But I loved how, here, all the different shapeshifters have their own cultures, and how intertwined their non-human forms are with their human ethnicities.
One of my favourite things in all fantasy, regardless of sub-genre, is when authors apply outside-the-box thinking to magic, and that’s present in Monkey Around in spades. Maya has quite a few abilities, but her primary one is her shapeshifting – and unlike other shapeshifters, she doesn’t just turn into an animal: she can turn into anything. Reading her fight scenes was an absolute delight, because Jang has her really utilise her powers: turning into smoke when someone’s about to hit her, or rubber, and then transforming a fist into cement to hit the other guy. And the things she can do with her hairs!!! I won’t tell you what they are, but they’re awesome!
Monkey Around is also unbelievably packed. Every time I checked what % I was at on my ereader, I was stunned that there was still so much left of the book to go – what else was going to happen?! Because something was always happening; the pacing never let up, and yet, it didn’t feel rushed at all. I do have to admit I disliked how there was no way for me to put the pieces together before each reveal – there weren’t really hints dropped, or if there were, I missed them – and although I spent most of the book thinking Maya was the kind of ridiculously fun, smart person I’d love to be friends with, one of her choices in particular, towards the ending, I’m not sure I can forgive her for.
That said? I’m about 99% sure this is just the start of a series, and I will be keeping an eye out for book two – even if Maya needs to redeem herself in my eyes, I’m pretty sure she’ll manage it, and I really want to know what happens next!