Jadie Jang’s 2021 debut Monkey Around is an urban fantasy novel.
Maya MacQueen was left at a fire station when she was only two months old; she was raised by foster parents. She has no idea who her parents were nor any idea why she’s a shape-changer who is particularly good at turning into a monkey. All she knows is that she is both Asian-American and part of the Bay Area’s supernatural population.
Now grown, she divides her time between serving coffee, running errands for occult expert and problem solver Dr. Ayo Espinoza, and serving activism and great justice in the Bay Area. With the Bay Area’s answer to Occupy Wall Street reaching its apex, there’s lots for her to do. A string of unsolved murders represents yet one more thing to do. It’s all too much.
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The Bay Area attracts a range of supernatural beings as diverse as its human population. Maya’s cases reflect this.
The case presents as a straightforward missing persons case. Dalisay, leader of Bay Area aswang has vanished. Dalisay is adept at managing human-aswang relations, a person whose absence will be noted. Maya’s covert surveillance of the Hung For Tong is insufficiently covert. The Tong’s bajang guard, former mixed martial arts star Budi “Bu Bu” Budima, foolishly tackles Maya after she trips a trap Bu Bu set for her. As soon as he apprehends Maya’s abilities, Bu Bu is terrified of Maya. This is the first time they have met but it’s not the first time Bu Bu has encountered something like Maya. The last one, according to Bu Bu, ate souls.
Soon afterward wealthy businessman Wayland Soh, sponsor for many Asian-American non-profits, turns up dead. He’s also a shape-shifter, like Maya. Whatever killed Soh drained him of his essence. Was he killed by the soul-eater Bu Bu fears?
Bu Bu becomes the next victim. A pattern is emerging: both Soh and Bu Bu were supernatural beings; while they were very different kinds of supernatural, both of them had the ability to change their form. Whatever is at work is targeting shapeshifters in particular, draining each of them in turn of their essence.
However, is the common link simply shapeshifting or is something else motivating the predator’s selection of victims? There might be a clue in the arcane artifact that appears next to the bodies of the victims. It could be a clue — but if Maya investigates, it could turn out to be a trap. Maya may be the next shapeshifter victim.
Although elements of the plot reflect a series-long plot, the book itself functions as a stand-alone mystery.
As many readers will have guessed, Maya is somehow connected to the Monkey King. Now, it’s a plot point that she wasn’t raised in an Asian family that practiced an Asian culture, even if her parents were probably of Asian ancestry. She has never heard of the Monkey King. Nor has her boss/mentor, Dr. Ayo Espinoza, whose otherwise comprehensive occult expertise does not extend to Asian folklore. Still, one of Maya’s gigs involves Asian-American activism. Did she never ask any of her contacts about shapeshifting into a monkey? Or type “Asian shapeshifter monkey” into a search engine?
That detail aside, this is a fine example of the private detective story which features an excess of clues and in which events evolve too quickly for simple deduction to save some of the characters. No methodical poring over train schedules and alibis here. Maya takes a page from Robert Parker’s Spenser and starts kicking rocks over to see who takes a shot at the kicker1. Which, on reflection, is another hint about her connection to the Monkey King.
For that matter, while Raymond Chandler almost certainly did not have the Monkey King in mind (or any obvious awareness that women exist) when he said
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
But Maya fits the bill pretty well.
One might expect a novel driven by a string of murders, some of quite sympathetic characters, would be a recipe for unrelenting grimness. Not so! While the deaths are tragic, the novel itself is often funny. The novel’s resolution leaves Maya with yet more questions. Most readers will want to follow her path to the answers.
1: Unlike Spenser, Maya is nigh-indestructible, although the case will provide her with a useful lesson in the limits of that “nigh.”