Thursday, January 04, 2024

Yoo, Small Gods of Calamity (2024)

Sam Kyung Yoo, Small Gods of Calamity. Interstellar Flight Press, 2024. Pp. 151. ISBN 978-1-953736-28-4. $9.99.

Reviewed by Julie Reeser

Small Gods of Calamity is a debut novella by Sam Kyung Yoo, who has had a short but illustrious career publishing stories in magazines such as Fantasy and Strange Horizons, with work showcasing themes of East Asian folklore and ghosts. This foundation has served them well for this strikingly emotional urban fantasy, set in Seoul, a landlocked city. Kim Han-gil is investigating an apparent suicide when he smells the sea. This is his first clue that his past has once again caught up with him, and that the death at his feet is something much more sinister. Because that smell isn’t actually the sea, it’s a spirit.

A misunderstood detective with a traumatic past is a dime-a-dozen, and normally wouldn’t be enough to catch my attention, but the mystery of Han-gil’s past and the unusual magic in this novella grabbed me hard and wouldn’t let go. I am not one for copaganda, and neither is Yoo. The main protagonist is an outsider of a different variety to his colleagues. While he might be a bit of a vigilante, it’s not for the typical violence or misanthropy, but to save lives from things that his fellow police can’t see and don’t believe exist. His coworkers don’t just ignore him though: they tease and taunt, and generally make Han-gil’s life a lonely one.

Han-gil can sense spirit energy, and with the help of his adopted sister he performs exorcisms and banishes the malevolent who would harm the living. Every partner he’s assigned leaves, and everyone at work thinks he’s lost his mind. Resigned to being a social outcast, working on his own, he mostly tries to ignore the taunts and whispers of his peers. He has more important, compassionate, things to do. While this might be admirable, it’s also one more weight in his pocket as he tries to tread water. Without help, Han-gil is going to sink, and this deep character arc brought me immense pleasure as a reader. When the help that he needs turns out to be the person he blames for his grief and loss, I couldn’t stop reading.

There is a whiff of martyrdom from some of the characters, but Yoo never crosses the line all the way. This is a particularly important point because the flip of the misanthrope is the martyr, and neither would be as interesting as the sincere. Yoo’s delicate threading of this needle raises this novella to a higher plane for me.

The pacing is spot-on and tight, with every scene advancing either character or plot without losing the emotion or depth. Yoo pairs water with grief throughout the novella, and it is careful choices like this that really make the novella shine. The amount of detail was just enough to satisfy me while still leaving me wanting more. I actually stopped reading early on to sit in admiration of how deftly Yoo handled a lengthy phone conversation. This might seem a strange moment to admire, but phone dialogue is one of the hardest scenes to write well, and rarely does it evoke the powerful character imagery as Yoo does here.

I loved the rituals and magic that Yoo meshed together for this fictional Seoul. The sensing of different souls, or spirits, was very cool and unique with each practitioner having an idiosyncratic manifestation. As someone who is particularly sensitive to smells and sounds, this gave me a bit of a thrill. I love it when a magic system feels possible, especially in urban fantasy. The spirit wards crafted by the characters were also beautiful in concept and execution, and I found myself coming back to this magic system over and over long after I’d finished reading. I hope this becomes a series because I’d like to read more of this kind of magic.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the trans rep in this novella. Yoo shows some of the pain that a trans person can often experience, but it never felt exploitive or performative to me. Yoo does what so many other authors don’t—trans characters are integral and secondary, just like any other demographic. Is there pain and sadness for any of the trans characters? Yes. Are there trans characters living their best lives? Also yes. From victim to physician, each trans character had their own truth. More of this, please.

I don’t know if it’s possible to categorize a paranormal murder mystery with some body horror as cozy, but Sam Kyung Yoo has gotten as close as I think is feasible with Small Gods of Calamity. The perspective of a compassionate cop who tolerates the negatives of the system because it’s the best way he can save lives, to the gentleness with which we are shown how to forgive the impossible, puts this novella at the top of my comfort reads. Highly recommend.

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