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Ship of Fates

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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.

127 pages, Paperback

First published April 21, 2020

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Caitlin Chung

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 20 of 20 reviews
Profile Image for Rebecca.
824 reviews121 followers
August 5, 2020
Interesting idea, and spin on Fairytales but very bleak and lacking any hope. The prose is fine, often times beautiful, but the swearing, anachronistic dialogue, and pointless sexual metaphors took me out of the story. Excessive passive verb tense distanced me from the characters. I felt like I was being told everything rather than shown. Good ideas, but left me bored and wondering what the author was trying to say with this book.
Profile Image for Katie Lawrence.
1,496 reviews27 followers
April 4, 2020
Review to come. Really enjoyed learning a bit about a historical time that I was not very familiar with. I did a lot of Googling after I finished the book.

Review for the Library Journal:

DEBUT In this slim first novel, Chung crafts a dark, original fairy tale about fate, consequences, and the origins of California's gold. An unnamed narrator in an unidentified time begins the story, visiting an abandoned lighthouse in San Francisco. The heavy door is answered by an age-defying Chinese woman, who serves tea and starts spinning stories. She begins in 1000 BCE China with teenage Mei, promised in marriage to a stranger. Instead, she steals his riches, flees to San Francisco, and flings the gold into area rivers. She changed her fate, but at great cost. Mei is now cursed to live until she reclaims all the gold. The Gold Rush arrives before she finishes, and her desperation grows. Spanning generations, focusing largely on Chinese women in and around San Francisco's Barbary Coast, the story explores fate, the oppression women faced, and how Mei's progressively riskier acts, including attempts to sacrifice other women to save herself, affect those around her.

VERDICT Speaking to the difficulties that faced women, particularly immigrants in the 1800s, this is a powerful if bleak look at the nature of California's Barbary Coast. Recommended for fans of unique historical fiction.
Profile Image for Tim Hicks.
1,537 reviews119 followers
January 8, 2021
I suppose it's my reading background that made me not enjoy this.
I read many SF/F books, and a smidgen of historical. Lots of fantasy, involving mythology and fairy tales from many places.

Stealing gold and fleeing by whale? No problem.
Tossed up in San Francisco, Gold Rush days, where Chinese people and women are treated as you might expect if you've read about it before.

So here's Mei, trapped in her lighthouse. Did I miss the part where we were told what happened when she tried to leave? You can do a lot with a lighthouse full of gold, if you can figure out a way to carry it. and hmm, how did all those sharp swindlers not figure out that she had a gazillion dollars in the lighthouse and no way to defend it?

Here's Huang, swindled out of wife and money, who apparently shrugs and moves on (OK, he doesn't have any power, but golly ...). Jack and Annie do what they can, but it's not very interesting. Mei feeds tea to our narrator, but doesn't act like someone who's making much of an effort to break a curse. And then it ends.

Lyrically written, but the story didn't suspend my disbelief at all.


Profile Image for Keilla.
39 reviews24 followers
April 21, 2020
Happy Release Day! This is a atmospheric novel that will transport you through history with a bit of magic.

Read it now!
Profile Image for An.
243 reviews7 followers
June 20, 2020
Ship of Fates is an original fairy tale that combines Eastern and Western folklore with the Chinese-American immigrant experience. 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."

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.
Profile Image for Joe.
38 reviews
July 5, 2022
This is the second book I'm reading that I bought directly from the publisher at a flea market.

My rating is 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3. I thought the setting/background explored by the book was unique and Chung's writing was very detailed and a pleasure to read. My negatives were similar to a few of the other things already mentioned in other reviews.

First, I don't mind sexual metaphors when they seem to make sense... But within the first 20 pages, there are several that felt out of place. It got to the point where I was much more aware of the times Chung repeatedly referred to the "phallic lighthouse" throughout the book. I doubt I would've even noticed normally.

Second, I agree that a lot of the book felt anachronistic. It wasn't a huge deal but was fairly noticeable.

Lastly, I also felt like the book ended up being bleak. I did like how Chung connected the ending characters to the rest of the story.

Overall I enjoyed Ship of Fates!
15 reviews
June 12, 2020
A strange, beautiful, and fantastical tale-within-a-tale set during the Gold Rush on San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Ship of Fates is a magical realist immigrant story about an immortal woman who is desperate to escape her ancient curse.

It is centered largely around various women, the society that enslaves them, and the way they victimize each other in turn. Almost invariably, the appearance of male characters feels jarring and intrusive to the narrative - the lighthouse that imprisons Mei is repetitiously described as phallic.

This is hardly a hopeful story but the tale is doled out with a wry, frank, cynical humor. The brief moments of hope and connection between characters dissipate as quickly and tenuously as they appear, but these moments of happiness are no less beautiful for being ephemeral. This gorgeously written story that will linger with me for some time.
Profile Image for Alyisha.
713 reviews30 followers
November 29, 2021
An ageless lighthouse keeper tells her story. She is “the thief wife.” She is responsible for the presence of gold in California. She is cursed. She needs to reclaim everything she stole when fleeing the prospect of a loveless marriage in China in order to escape her curse.

This is a strange book. The narrative alternates between 2nd & 3rd person. The language is a blend of lyrical, magical prose & profanity. The end is extremely unsatisfying.

Because of its length (144 pages), it feels more like a sketch than a whole. There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive idea tying the story together. If anything, it might just be that everyone is greedy & “fucked,” which, y’know…is really nice. 😅🙈
Profile Image for Nathan Elias.
Author 7 books30 followers
September 30, 2020
Finally finished the ARC copy of Ship of Fates: A Novella and WOW was it good! Pick up this book!

"Fate is made of water, made to fit itself into the last spaces open in a life. Made to be needed."

I loved how fluidly the author moves from character to character, giving the reader just enough backstory and conflict for each one before moving forward in time, all the while utilizing Mei to hold the story together.

The fact that the legends and curses were present but not entirely explained added a layer of mystery to this book, which, in my opinion, begs to read the novel again and again.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bee.
22 reviews2 followers
February 29, 2020
A complicated, short novel that I think I need to discuss with someone to get a full sense of. Full of the gold rush & Barbary Coast, with Rapunzel elements and maybe hints of Kaguya? It's a history that I wish I had better context for, which is a personal statement that I think of as a rousing endorsement.
1 review
October 13, 2020
What a wonderful debut. Beautiful storytelling with a dash of humor to set off moments of gnarled realism. I think the book’s strongest message is about perspective. About how one’s own voice can both command and be absorbed by myth. It tells a forgotten narrative while creating a new one that is modern, intelligent and, maybe most importantly, fun to read.
April 13, 2021
This was a fun novella to read. I loved the setting the most. The Barbary Coast, docks, ships, and the seas coast made me feel like I was there. The descriptions of the people and scenes inside the ship were fun. It is a modern fairy tale so it can feel like What’s the moral here? sometimes but overall I enjoyed the drama and history.
*Lanternfish Press provided a copy to review
Profile Image for Gabe Eggers.
53 reviews
June 17, 2023
This story-within-a-story set against the California gold rush weaves together legend with a timeless present all with a fairy tale vibe. I'm not decided on how I feel about the ending, but the overall story was engaging enough.
272 reviews
March 13, 2021
Very cool setting. More stories about SF during the gold rush, please! Interesting style.
Profile Image for Aubry.
24 reviews1 follower
January 27, 2022
Equal parts heart-wrenching and beautiful. A look at generational trauma through a magical realism fairy tale retelling, set against the Gold Rush Era San Francisco.
Profile Image for Jennifer Pullen.
Author 4 books24 followers
June 2, 2022
A slim novel lit by a fay light, fable and the history of the California goldrush woven together. Loved it!
Profile Image for Cindy.
218 reviews35 followers
May 26, 2020
The art of storytelling features an engrossing tale and pitch-perfect delivery; Caitlin Chung excels at both in her debut, Ship of Fates. A young woman listens as Mei, an ancient lighthouse keeper, combines the legend of "Maker of Gold Mountain" with her tragic life story. The young woman hears "these stories--the ones about her, about this place, and about the old place, too."

The legend begins in China in 1000 BC, where Mei, a beautiful woman betrothed to a foreigner, steals her dowry gold and rides a whale across the sea to a rocky coast with a welcoming bay. There she throws the gold into rivers and hills "where no gold was before, nor was ever meant to be." Although she's free, she's also cursed. She must keep fires going, "a mirror for the feral hope of her search" until she recovers every nugget she stole.

In 1849, Mei still lives in San Francisco, "a city stained yellow--yellow in the flowers and gold in the waters." She's collected an unimaginable amount of gold in her lighthouse, but it's still not enough. Desperate to be free, she entraps another young woman, only to see this selfish act backfire. Mei is still "surrounded by an amount of gold as dense and deep as need, as soft as a desperate woman's conviction." Thus Mei, the maker of Gold Mountain, remains in her lighthouse to this day. Desire, deceit and regret come together in this spellbinding mixture of legend and heartbreak.

-reviewed for Shelf Awareness 5-26-20
Displaying 1 - 20 of 20 reviews

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