Ship of Fates by Caitlin Chung

In the gridlocked harbor of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, a ship hung with red paper lanterns draws crowds eager to gamble and drink. Aboard this red-lit ship, the fates of two young women will be altered irrevocably—and tied forever to that of an ancient lighthouse keeper who longs to be free.

Set against the backdrop of Gold Rush–era San Francisco’s Chinese immigrant community, Ship of Fates is a coming-of-age fairy tale that stretches across generations.

Ship of Fates is an original fairy tale that combines Eastern and Western folklore with the Chinese immigrant experience to America. As someone who comes from an Asian background, I found it refreshing to see a historical fiction that focuses on Asian-Americans without the stereotypical “exotic” mystique of the Far East. The author openly acknowledges the discrimination that early Chinese immigrants encountered (and still continue to) in America. Aside from overt racism like “Orientals” and “Chinaman,” the characters in Ship of Fates experience daily microaggressions that challenge their very identity:

“His name was Wayne. Actually his name was Huang. Huang Jin Bo. He and his bride came from China, from Guangzhou, on a boat, and all the way he’d practiced saying in English: my name is Huang Jin Bo. He’d said it perfectly. But the man at the pier wrote down in his book, Wayne Jimbo. Now that was his name. That’s how things were for the Chinese.”

As it turns out, identity is a central theme along with personal responsibility. Caitlin Chung takes the Confucian concept of duty and applies it to her re-imagined Promethean tale of Mei, an immortal lighthouse keeper who is forced to do penance for a crime committed centuries ago. Mei becomes an agent of change as she manipulates the other characters to achieve her own ends and win back her freedom. When it comes to historical fiction, there is a fine balance to making sure that female characters have agency during a time period when women were afforded few rights. This is where I feel Chung’s writing falters slightly. Mei and the other women feel anachronistic, as if they were 21st century people displaced in 1800’s California. Some of the behavior and language (e.g. “pissed off”) do not seem particularly authentic to the era and undermine the verisimilitude of the story. Despite this, I find Chung’s writing to be lyrical and filled with beautifully vivid descriptions. Ship of Fates may be Chung’s debut novel, but she writes like a seasoned author. Overall, I enjoyed this novella and recommend it to fans of Angela Carter, Chinese mythology, and magical realism. Many thanks to Lanternfish Press for sending me an advance reading copy.

“They abandoned ship, eager to find their fortunes, and were never seen again. All except for one lonely sailor. He watched the last of his fellows set off across the beach, out of the lighthouse’s shadow and into the sun. He took in the thin fog, the way it smelled like the tide, and he felt at home. Out at sea, there are no smells–not of the human work, not of reassurance. For the first time in many months, he could think in other colors besides blue.”

Excerpt from Ship of Fates

Full disclosure: I was gifted a copy of the book, and my review is based on an uncorrected proof. Ship of Fates is currently available in bookstores. Order your copy here.

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