As part of the Nerd Girls Book Tour, I reviewed Stronger Than A Bronze Dragon, a YA fantasy adventure written by author Mary Fan, and even got to interview Mary about the book and her writing process.
Overall, the book is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and set in a Chinese mythological world featuring epic sword battles, mysterious shadow creatures, magical enchantments, and steampunk aesthetics — so picture a steampunk Mulan with the action bar raised to five thousand.
The story follows the journey Anlei, a warrior-girl from the outskirt village of Dailan. It is a place which has little going on save for its infamous dragon shrine that holds the mysterious River Pearl. Which legends say host a great power encased inside.
Anlei serves as one of the village guards — a non-traditional role for women — as the emperor has refused to send aid, forcing many of the surviving townsfolk to defend against the Ligui: dark shadow monsters who take on many shapes and forms. When the Ligui materializes into the world, they run amok and kill indiscriminately, whatever is closest to them.
Showing great prowess in combat and acrobatic ability, Anlei’s duty is to defend the village by slaying Ligui with her father’s magical sword. Though in fulfilling this, she is also always on the lookout for the mysterious Shadow Warrior, a Ligui that slew her father in combat whom she holds a personal vendetta against and seeks to kill in revenge.
Until the day the bronze mechanical dragons came, and with them, the arrival of Viceroy Kang, a powerful official to the emperor. After Kang converses with the village’s Headman Su, he decides to finally send soldiers under one specific agreement: The River Pearl and a chosen bride from the village to justify Kang’s sent reinforcements — revealed to be, Anlei.
Forced to choose between the life of a warrior or forced marriage, Anlei’s decisions are once again cut short once the River Pearl is stolen. Chasing after the mysterious yet kind thief with noble intentions, to reobtain the River Pearl, Anlei is recruited on a quest which takes her on a wild adventure to slay the demon king, Mowang. Though like all the best stories, not everything is as it seems.
There are a lot of great things about the book that I can’t fit in one review, but I’ll try my best. For starters, Mary is a wonderful descriptive writer who knows how to engage the audience without losing them, showing great skill in describing the details while also not tossing too much information at once.
This is especially showcased in her fight and action sequences, which there are a lot of in this book. The fights do a great job balancing elaborate fight scenes and conveying necessity, pushing the story along for a whirlwind of a ride.
Likewise, the fantasy elements are heavy with airships, magic, spirits, and machinations — all for a very Chinese and Steam Punk feel which feels authentic and grounded. What’s great is that the characters seamlessly acknowledge these elements about the world which sells the world rather easily.
Atop of this, Anlei’s lack of people skills but impressive fighting and scouting ability helps convey the tiny intricate physical details from her point of view. To the reader this showcases itself as magnificent descriptive scenes that still leaves plenty of mystery — especially with regards to character motivations, never breaking the slow revealing plot of the overarching story.
Anlei is such a relatable character whose expectations about balancing honor and duty really strikes at the heart of the reader. How much slaying the Shadow Warrior means to her sense of honor, but also, how much her identity is reshaped by duty to her people.
Arguably, one of the best things about the book is that midway through reading it, the plot shifts its focus, giving the story an entirely new perspective. Looking back, you see everything built up until that point, you can see the previous chapters from an entirely new point of view. Which was very enlightening and honestly surprised me as a reader.
My only issue with the story was a bit of the villainous intentions. Though I will admit I appreciated how it all came full circle.
I enjoyed it and if you like action fantasy adventures with a kickass female protagonist, you’ll probably like this. Highly recommend you check it out for yourself.
Interview with Mary Fan
I got to talk with author, Mary Fan about some of her influences and the process in creating her book Stronger Than A Bronze Dragon. Here’s some of that conversation below.
Who are some of your influences as a writer?
It’s hard to say specifically, since I like to read far and wide, but I feel like a lot of the books I read as a kid still influence my writing style. Harry Potter for its action, adventure, magic and mystery, The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the empathy it shows its characters, Gone With the Wind (I know! I know!) for its depiction of an unapologetically strong heroine.
Do issues or current events in society influence your story choices?
Yes and no. I haven’t written a deliberate parallel to current events before, but a lot of what I observe in the world around me makes its way into my story. For instance, with STABD, I think I was influenced by all the feminist voices calling out the impossible standard for “likability” in women — how if a male boss yells at an employee, he’s tough, but if a female boss does it, she’s a bitch (they’re both jerks).
What inspired you to make this story?
The first idea I had was for a sort of Cinderella retelling — rich man chooses a poor girl for a bride and makes her royalty. Except, in an unhappy twist, Prince Charming is a jerk, Cinderella has no say in the matter, and the kingdom is cursed. Then I started brainstorming what would prompt a wealthy man, who could have any pick of noble ladies, to force a marriage with a poor girl in the first place. From there, a plot was born, and it ended up having virtually nothing to do with Cinderella at all.
From magic to airships to automatons and ethereal creatures, STABD does an excellent job combining different fantasy elements. Did you know which ones from the beginning, you were going to incorporate for your story?
Thank you! For STABD, I had the world in mind before I had a plot. I wanted to write a story set in the kind of fantasy version of China I’d watched in Chinese TV shows as a kid (and to remove it further from its roots, I did away with the real world altogether, kind of like Middle Earth did for Europe). And I’ve loved steampunk forever (especially Treasure Planet and Atlantis — the two most underrated Disney movies ever), so I wanted to incorporate some of those elements into my fantasy.
Are the Ligui or Yueshen based on any myths in particular? What about Mowang, and the circles of hell whose origins seem well known by all the characters in this universe?
They’re not based on any specific myths… in fact, my knowledge of “real” lore is pretty spotty. But what’s “real” about lore anyway? For the Courts of Hell, I was loosely inspired by the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology, which do describe hell as courts. The exact number depends on different teachings/religions. Some speak of 10, some 3-4, some 18… I chose infinity because it seems every day, humanity finds a new kind of evil. I have a feeling the actual happenings in the Courts of Hell are a mishmash of various fantasies and mythologies I’ve absorbed.
Your talent for descriptive writing is excellent all throughout the story, particularly the cutting-pace action sequences that balances conveying information with dynamic movement. Do you outline, draw, or choreograph a fight scene before writing it? How do you know which details to focus on in when so much happens?
Thank you! I always mentally choreograph the sequence first. Sometimes, I’ll vaguely outline it in quick bullet points if I’m having trouble picturing what’s going on. For STABD, actually, I was somewhat inspired by the role-playing game I was participating in at the time (Pathfinder) — how each character has their own intentions and skills, and how whether you hit or miss depends on a roll of the dice. Actually, I used my dice in some scenes where I wasn’t 100% sure how it would play out… Anlei will always make a move, but will she hit?
At the workprint we do pieces about Joseph Campbell’s ‘Monomyth’, also known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Did you use this or any other plotting device when writing STABD? If so, were there any fun bits where you found your writing diverging from the outline and going into fun worldbuilding bits of detail?
There are loads of works out there about story theory and story structure, and I feel like I’ve encountered a good chunk of them over the years, absorbing what works and what doesn’t. While I didn’t intentionally use any as a blueprint, I’m certain the concepts influenced how the plotting of my book went. At a certain point, I internalized a lot of it, so I could vaguely tell when it “felt” like the right moment for a particular action. I actually think STABD maps pretty well onto Joseph Campbell’s monomyth… it even has a descent into hell! To me, the most important thing when outlining is the balance of the story… you always want the big climactic moment you’ve been building up to close to the end. Otherwise everything afterward just feels like it’s dragging on.
What is your favorite characteristic about Anlei? How is she different from characters you’ve written in the past?
Anlei is different from the other characters I’ve written about in that she’s got very low emotional intelligence — she’s bad at recognizing feelings in both herself and in others. And that’s partly because of the way she views herself and the world. The world is full of threats, and she feels she needs to be as indestructible as possible to protect herself and those she cares about. I think my favorite characteristic about her, though, is how unabashed she is in so many of her actions. She’s not so much intentionally confident as she sees the world in a very straightforward way and does what she believes she needs to with little question.
Tai, the thief character, seems to play a lot of different roles in your story. Was this originally how you intended your character concept or had his role evolved over time?
Many layers of his identity evolved during the outlining/brainstorming process, but he was always meant to be a foil and love interest for Anlei — someone who was the opposite of her in many ways, but also someone she could share a connection with. Where Anlei very intentionally takes everything seriously, Tai deliberately refuses to, often joking or laughing at inappropriate times. It’s a challenge for Anlei to first put up with him and then later to understand why he is the way he is.
Ibitsuu plays quite the magical role in your story, serving as someone uniquely helpful but also seemingly wise beyond her years. Can you tell us more about what inspired her character and would you ever consider doing a spinoff look into her origins?
Going back to the classic monomyth, Ibsituu was conceived to fill the role of the mentor. The Dumbledores, the Obi-Wans, the Gandalfs of the world. Originally, she, too, was going to be a pale old man with a white beard. But then I thought to myself, “Why?” Anlei and Tai would need help on their quest, and she would step into that role, but she could also be a lot more. I didn’t have a whole lot of space to work with, but I did my best to hint at the fact that she had this rich, adventurous life before meeting them, and she’ll go on to weave her own story long after the book is done. In a way, I felt like STABD was borrowing her… like one of those crossover events in the Arrowverse. She’s the star of her own show, and she stepped into Anlei’s briefly to defeat a mutual enemy.
It would be interesting to have a spinoff about her origins, but weirdly, I don’t think I’m the right person to write it. Even in my own head, she’s a borrowed character, and I don’t know if I’d do her justice.
You’ve made a conscious choice to write strong female characters. Anlei is a heroine with stakes that weight her personal freedom over duty to her community. Were there any themes or messages in particular you wanted the audience to take away from this?
I mostly wanted to challenge the idea that to be a heroine, one also had to be “likable.” Or that being “unlikable” automatically made a character somehow bad. Anlei doesn’t mean to be prickly (and sometimes selfish) — it’s a product of how she sees and interacts with the world. At the same time, I wanted to peel back her layers and show that she can also be very vulnerable, and that she cares deeply about people. I wanted to challenge the assumption that just because someone doesn’t act “nice,” that doesn’t mean they aren’t good at heart.
Would you ever consider a sequel?
I’d love to do a sequel! Either about Anlei’s continued adventures or possibly a spinoff about her sister, Anshui. We’ll see…
Follow the Author
Thanks again to author Mary Fan for taking the time out to interview her, along with the awesome opportunity with The Nerd Girl Books tour, for allowing TheWorkprint to partake and getting us some reader copies.
Now go out there and support more speculative fiction. And if it’s written by women, with more representation for women, even better. At least for me.