Never Have I Ever
Author: Isabel Yap
Publisher: Small Beer Press (February 9, 2021)
Paperback, 248 pages
Short Stories, Adult Fiction, Fantasy, Horror
“Am I dead?”
Mebuyen sighs. She was hoping the girl would not ask.
Spells and stories, urban legends and immigrant tales: the magic in Isabel Yap’s debut collection jumps right off the page, from the joy in her new novella, “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” to the terrifying tension of the urban legend “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez.”
Never Have I Ever is not quite what I’d expected. First of all, this cover is *gorgeous* beyond words. I think I was expecting a collection of stories that were more like fairy tales. Instead I was happily surprised to find a collection of mostly urban fantasy, some with a strong horror element, with a few historical and futuristic stories folded into the mix to keep it spicy. Most of these stories are set in the Philippines and/or are based on Filipino myths and urban legends. There are a lot of Filipino terms and phrases so I found myself hitting up Google a fair number of times, especially when it came to some of the creatures and characters from Filipino myth that popped up in the stories. Much of the time there were context clues so a reader unfamiliar with Filipino culture could probably piece things together, but I personally was more comfortable doing a search for terms and phrases I didn’t know. I feel like I know a little more about the Philippines now!
The stories vary so much in setting, in tone, and even what tense and POV they’re written in, and yet Isabel Yap’s voice remains true through all of them. It’s so incredible how she manages to weave such different stories, and yet they’re all compelling! Here’s a very short rating, breakdown of genre/POV, and mini-review for each story.
*Good Girls – 4 stars | urban fantasy, horror | present tense, alternating POV between third person limited (Sara) and second person (“you” are Kaye) | This story was the first indication that I was in for a different book than I’d been expecting. “Oh, is this horror?” I also had to run to Google to see what a manananggal looks like. (It looks… just like you’d expect from the story. *shudder*)
*A Cup of Salt Tears – 3 stars | urban fantasy | third person present tense | This one is… a little bit horror? But more subtle than the first story. I did Google what a kappa is and some more on the lore surrounding them (and wow, uh… it’s pretty wild).
*Milagroso – 4 stars | speculative fiction/urban fantasy | third person present tense | In the future we’ve solved the problems of world hunger by manufacturing safe and nutritious synthetic foods. This story gave me some Margaret Atwood vibes.
*A Spell for Foolish Hearts – 5 stars | urban fantasy, romance | third person past tense | This was one of my two favorite stories in the collection, because I’m a sucker for a romance plotline, haha. And finally, a happier story that didn’t leave me with a vague sense of unease! This is also one of the longer stories in the collection, which I was glad for because it’s SO good.
*Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez? – 4 stars | urban fantasy, horror | first person past tense | This story alternates between the story itself and several short urban legends about Anamaria Marquez (“a student at St. Brebeuf’s, just like us”). But those urban legends are clearly just stories… or are they?
*Syringe – 5 stars | science fiction | third person omniscient, present tense | Set in a future where androids are our Nurses(TM) and Doctors(TM), this is the story of one Ada model’s… relationship?… with a patient, Mrs. Romauldez. Big Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep vibes.
*Asphalt, River, Mother, Child – 4 stars | urban fantasy? contemporary mythology retelling? | third person present tense | I had to Google a lot for this one (who is Mebuyen and why does she have so many boobs? what’s a sando? what’s Barong Tagalong?) but was still pulled completely into the story. Mebuyen is a Bagobo goddess who nurses children who’ve died while still nursing until they are weaned and sent on to the underworld where the rest of the dead reside. For some reason, people who are not babies start showing up in Mebuyen’s domain. Alternates between Mebuyen’s POV and that of JM, one of the police in the “war on drugs” who is involved in the deaths of those showing up in Mebuyen’s home.
*Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing) – 4 stars | contemporary fantasy? | first person past tense | Magical girls! Except they’re all grown up, one of them is getting married, and they’re too old for this shit. Can’t they just have one night of peace to have a bachelorette party? (The answer is no. No they cannot.)
*Only Unclench Your Hand – 4 stars | urban fantasy | first person present tense | I was so compelled by this story, but it also left me going “…what just happened?” a little bit. It reminds me a lot of the vibe in the movie Practical Magic – maybe it’s all the bugs!
*How to Swallow the Moon – 5 stars | fantasy, romance | second person present tense | This is my other favorite story in the collection, and surprise! it’s the other one with a strong romance element to it. (Yes, I am predictable, okay!) The world building, language, and imagery in this story are so beautiful and heartbreaking. This is the type of story I was expecting this entire book to be, and if there was only going to be one true classic fairy tale in this book I’m so glad it was this story.
*All the Best of Dark and Bright – 4 stars | urban fantasy | third person past tense | A modern retelling/spin on the story of Maganda and Malakas (which, yes, I had to Google). The story is left rather open-ended (like some of the others in the collection, but I felt it the most with this one), which I liked.
*Misty – 2 stars | horror | third person present tense | This story left me going “WTF??” and was by far my least favorite story in the collection. It alternates between the story of Ramona and her sister visiting their dad, with some strange flashback moments thrown in, and then a story about a woman named Susan that Ramona is telling her sister. There aren’t really good transitions between the current action, Ramona’s memories, and Ramona’s story, so this was really confusing to read.
*A Canticle for Lost Girls – 4 stars | contemporary fiction? horror? I’m not even sure? | first person, alternating between present and past tense | This story alternates between the main character present day spending time with her daughter, interspersed with a past tense recounting of her relationship with her two best friends, how they drifted apart and then how a terrifying incident at a school retreat drew them back together closer than before.
Overall I give this collection 4 stars, and I’ll definitely be reading more by Isabel Yap in the future!
A digital ARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Edelweiss+ for review. All opinions are unbiased and my own.
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