American Born Chinese was always going to be a tough act for Gene Yang to follow and The Eternal Smile, illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim, doesn’t quite hit the mark. Although the three short stories offered here are interesting, it’s only the last one that shines with anything like the brightness of American Born Chinese.
Each of the three stories has a twist and, as usual, we aren’t going to spoil it for you by revealing anything. However, while they are well set up and executed, they just don’t carry enough punch to make them truly engaging. The last story, which sees a lonely and timid office worker duped by a Nigerian money laundering scam is easily the best, as we can start to feel some empathy for the main character. In the others, we see deliberate stereotypes going through the motions before, as befits a tale with a twist, the author opens our eyes to reveal another side of the story from a different perspective.
The first story is a fantasy tale, in which a young soldier battles with monsters and demons by day, but his dreams are haunted by mysterious visions from another life. You’ll probably see the premise behind the surprise ending coming well before you get there, as clues are dropped as you progress through the story, which is perhaps something of an anti-climax.
The second is the story of a frog called Gran’pa Greenbax, clearly based on Scrooge McDuck, but taking the capitalist’s greedy desire for money and power to absolute extremes. As with the first, things in the second story aren’t quite what they seem. Despite this, the second story left me feeling almost nothing at all – perhaps its nuances were lost on me, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to work my way back through it to find out.
While the artwork is great, the stories let it down. One good, one bad, one indifferent isn’t really a good record for a short anthology like this so it’s hard to recommend. While the final story is poignant and compelling, reading a book that’s only one third satisfying is ultimately disappointing.
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