To paraphrase future poet laureate Taylor Swift, I knew The Epic Crush of Genie Lo was trouble when it came in.
The front cover copy (”A demon invasion is no excuse for bad grades”) and back cover blurb (“She excels at standardized tests and annihilating the bad guys”) had me laughing aloud before reading a single word of F. C. Yee’s brilliant, hilarious young adult novel.
There aren’t enough “love it” gifs in the world to properly express my enthusiasm. I don’t remember the last book that had me giggling, chuckling, cackling, and literally LOLing this hard.
Sixteen-year-old Eugenia “Genie” Lo can be triangulated with the following factors: 1) a dysfunctional home life, 2) a laserlike focus on getting into the Ivy League, 3) an unnatural height, and 4) a bit of a rage problem – which does help her volleyball spike.
Genie is the most disciplined student you’ll ever meet. She’s put all her stock in the immortal words of both Britney Spears and RuPaul: “You better work.” Everything orbits around her central desire of getting into Harvard (or Yale, she’s not too picky) and leaving the San Francisco Bay Area forever. College applications are upon her, and the “who are you really?” essay questions are the bane of her existence.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Genie does not have the bandwidth for her school’s strangely persistent new student, Quentin Sun, nor for the malarkey that he’s spitting about them both being Chinese deities.
To Genie’s great frustration, that malarkey turns out to be true.
She’s apparently the reincarnation of a celestial spirit (I won’t tell you which). Quentin is the legendary Sun Wukong, or Handsome Monkey King, and he needs her help.
“Handsome” is right, by the way. When he first walks into Genie’s homeroom, she grouses, “Nothing good could come of our new classmate being that handsome. It was destructive. Twisted. Weaponized.”
But I digress. Quentin is here on a mission.
For the first time in centuries, yaoguai (demons from Chinese folklore) have gotten loose from their immortal prison. They’re showing up in Genie’s SF suburb and threatening to unleash mayhem and murder throughout the entire Bay Area – nay, the world.
Quentin has come to reawaken Genie’s true self, train up her mythological skills, and tag-team to kick yaoguai booty back behind bars.
All the academic performance in the world won’t help Genie in this battle. The good news, however, is that putting in the reps will. And, for another first, her hothead temper and short fuse actually come in handy in dispatching yaoguai.
F. C. Yee is a marvel. His protagonist is sarcastic and tough, wickedly funny and vulnerable, dedicated and foul-mouthed. Genie’s back-and-forths with Quentin are the best teen dialogue I’ve read in years.
Yee drops zinger after zinger (“You’re late to the scene. But somehow early in judgment.”) while exploring the rough reality of a single-parent household in non-glitzy California.
Quentin’s acclimation to the 21st century is hysterical and charming. At one point, he describes high school shenanigans as “banditry.” Genie’s best friend stifles a snicker, and Genie thinks, “Calling our school douchebags a pack of bandits seemed like an upgrade they didn’t deserve.”
And when asked to introduce himself to a new class, Quentin announces proudly, “I am the greatest of my kind. In this world I have no equal. I am known to thousands in faraway lands, and everyone I meet can’t help but declare me king!”
The baffled teacher stutters, “Well... um... we are all high achievers at SF Prep. I’m sure you’ll fit right in?”
Meanwhile, back at home base, Genie’s chronicle of her mother’s M.O. is nothing short of 16-year-old verbal acid.
“One of the reasons I didn’t have friends over for meals very often was because of how seriously my mother took the occasions,” she observes. “Eating at our table was like some kind of blood pact for her. If the get-together went well, you were in. For life. You could sleep in our cupboard if you wanted to and she wouldn’t bat an eye.
“If you did not hold up your end of the bargain in terms of being good company, or if, god forbid, you flaked, then you were cast into the lake of fire for eternity.”
Almost buried beneath the avalanche of awesome that is “The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,” however, is the importance of its demography.
Our heroes are Asian, but they’re not relegated to the role of sidekick or guru. Our female lead is hard-working and intelligent, and her character arc is all about ferocious self-improvement – Genie knows what she wants and she’ll work, work, work to get it. There’s romance involved (“crush” has two meanings), but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of her story.
Seeing strength and agency from a non-white, female lead, whose cover depiction is a powerful, non-sexy pose? That’s the kind of book we deserve in 2017.
F. C. Yee, you crushed it.