ARC Review: Yellowface

Leave it up to R.F. Kuang to deliver yet another masterpiece right after Babel because, yes, I have no doubt that Yellowface is about to rock the book world yet again (if it hasn't already). As of today, five days before the release date of 15 May 2023, this book has already racked up over 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.

So, what's it all about?

Cover of Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

Athena Liu is a literary darling and June Hayward is literally nobody.

White lies

When Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her unpublished manuscript and publishes it as her own under the ambiguous name Juniper Song.

Dark humour

But as evidence threatens June’s stolen success, she will discover exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

Deadly consequences…

What happens next is entirely everyone else’s fault.

I'd heard about this book for a while; I'm sure just about everyone who has been active in the book community would have. And I was, predictably, over the moon when my request for an eARC copy on NetGalley was approved by HarperCollins Australia (thank you, thank you, thank you).

But there were a few other ARCs I needed to read, and library books that were coming up for their due dates, so I left this book–despite a constant itch to read it–until this past week.

It was a chilly, autumn day like any day in Perth at this time of year– Okay, I'll stop. One stupid morning, I accidentally left my Kindle at home, which sent me into anxiety mode about having no book to read on my train commute into work and during my lunch break. Well, that's when I thought: Hey, I could start Yellowface on my NetGalley app without feeling guilty about sidetracking from my current reads. It would mean a painful experience reading a PDF book on my phone, but I'd done it a few times before; I could survive this too.

As it turned out, this was the first time the PDF-on-phone experience was not painful. Because this book was so addictive, so engaging, so relatable particularly as an Asian immigrant, that it ended up being a blessing that I read this on the phone–it meant I could read it whenever I had my phone with me, which was like… always. (Oh, and how fitting is it that it happens to be AAPI month? Perfect timing!)

Throughout my entire read, I was torn. Torn between despising and sympathising with the anti-hero protagonist, June Hayward aka Juniper Song. Torn between wanting to keep reading and wanting to slow down so I could enjoy it for longer. Torn between loving my read and cringing as I read all of June's casual racism and the lies she told herself to justify her actions.

My very real mid-read reactions logged on Goodreads went like this:

  • 20% — It's been a while since I've come across a book that I really want to binge-read. So far, after the first 20%, I am so obsessed.
  • 41% — Unputdownable. Unputdownable. Unputdownable. If only I had no responsibilities, I would easily binge this non-stop, and I really can't say that about many books.
  • 90% — I am torn between wanting to binge this book till the end yet wanting to drag it out for l longer. First time this year that I've felt this way about a book. If this doesn't win a Goodreads award I'm gonna be mad.
  • 98% — I just know this is one of those books I'm going to absolutely dread finishing.

Sure enough, after the last 2%, I needed more.

Spoiler alert for the ending!

Here's the thing: the ending is incredibly unsatisfying, but it makes perfect sense. Justice would demand that June be served with a big, cold dish of karma. But that would also be unrealistic, because in the real world, money makes the world go 'round. Think of all the problematic authors and creators out there who continue to print money. At the end of the day, controversies and scandals fuel sales. That's why the ending of Yellowface is so disappointing yet real. At the very least, this book brings the issues to light, even if the industry will stay as it is for the foreseeable future. 

Like Babel, this book is packed with themes including racism, plagiarism and cultural appropriation. It exposes the dark side of publishing (well done to the publisher for publishing it!) and raises awareness about social media abuse and the dangers of the rumour mill. But unlike Babel, it’s a much easier and lighter read. I don't know how Kuang managed to write such a thrilling story featuring all those heavy topics in under 350 pages, but she is an absolute queen for it.

In summary, this is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in having an insight into the publishing industry. I have seen negative reviews that mention how unlikeable the characters are, but that's what I also loved about this book (and isn't that also the point?). Kuang is truly a master at writing anti-heroes.

I don't normally feel a great desire to own a physical copy of a book after I'd already read it once, but this time, I am so, so glad I already pre-ordered a signed exclusive edition of Yellowface from Waterstones for a future re-read. Fingers crossed it survives the international shipping journey unscathed.

Completed: 8 May 2023

Allow me to briefly rave about my other reads of May so far:

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen (YA Fantasy)

Another 5 star read. What an incredibly creative writing style that mixes first and third-person POVs and breaks the fourth wall. I love how both Yellowface and Little Thieves utilised parentheses so effectively, when for a long time parentheses were frowned upon in fiction. All the characters were flawed–the main character especially so–but so lovable by the end of the story.

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence (Science Fiction, Dystopian, Fantasy)

This is another NetGalley ARC (yay). I am 88% in so far, and expecting this to be 4.5 to 5 stars. It took me a little while to get into it due to all the necessary set-up, but once I did get into it, I found it to be a tale full of action, interesting characters and amazing worldbuilding.

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