Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Jazz Age Demons and Deities Populate Shanghai Immortal

Books Features A.Y. Chao
Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Jazz Age Demons and Deities Populate Shanghai Immortal

There have been so many excellent fantasy releases based on Chinese mythology and history in recent years—Sue Lynn Tan’s Celestial Kingdom duology, R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, Kat Cho’s Gumiho books, and Amelie Wen Zhao’s new Song of the Last Kindom series, to name just a few. But get ready to add another magical title to that list later this year.

Author A.Y. Chao’s fantasy debut Shanghai Immortal is described as a love letter to the author’s Chinese diaspora heritage with a twist of Canadian sensibilities…and a lot of sass. It follows the story of Lady Jing, a half vampire half-hulijing fox-spirit and ward of the King of Hell, who finds herself on a mission to expose some courtiers on a mission to steal from him that doesn’t quite go as planned.

Shanghai Immortal explores complex issues of heritage, identity, belonging, and intersectional feminism on a literal adventure hell with jazz age gods, monsters, and everything in between. (Sign me up, is what I’m saying.)

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

Pawned by her mother to the King of Hell as a child, Lady Jing is half-vampire, half-hulijing fox-spirit and all sasshole. As the King’s ward, she has spent the past ninety years running errands, dodging the taunts of the spiteful hulijing courtiers, and trying to control her explosive temper – with varying levels of success.

So when Jing overhears the courtiers plotting to steal a priceless dragon pearl from the King, she seizes her chance to expose them, once and for all.

With the help of a gentle mortal tasked with setting up the Central Bank of Hell, Jing embarks on a wild chase for intel, first through Hell and then mortal Shanghai. But when her hijinks put the mortal in danger, she must decide which is more important: avenging her loss of face, or letting go of her half-empty approach to life for a chance to experience tenderness – and maybe even love.

Shanghai Immortal won’t hit shelves until October 31, 2023, but we’re thrilled to bring you a first look at its (incredibly gorgeous) cover right now—and a sneak peek of the book’s first chapter too!

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The Delivery

The steaming Shanghai night drapes heavy over my bare shoulders. I lean against the door of a decrepit warehouse, gums aching, stomach grumbling, and wait on Big Wang’s secret delivery. Cicadas scream all around me. With a title like Lady Jing of Mount Kunlun and ancestry that includes the great goddess Queen Mother of the West, running errands at 3 a.m. in this rotted heat might be considered below my station. With such a title, you’d expect me to be beautiful — all hair, ta-tas, and ass, held together with lashings of poise and dignity. Well, I’ll disabuse you of that notion right now. I am a degenerate mix of unfortunate genes and circumstances. From my dearly departed mother—a hulijing, or “bitch of a fox-spirit” as I prefer to call her—I inherited my feral lack of charm; from my father—some leech-faced vampire who couldn’t be bothered to stick around—a damned inconvenient predilection for blood.

While 3 a.m. might be when the sodden heat is at its worst, twilight is when the veil between the mortal world and the realms of Hell thins, making it easier for mortal couriers to make their deliveries. Hot as it is, Big Wang expects me to wait, so that’s what I do.

What’s Big Wang got to do with anything? Allow me to share my poor orphan story: my darling mother also had a damned inconvenient predilection. Hers was for diamonds the size of quail eggs, treasures a down-and-out deity such as herself could ill afford. Rather than give up her precious jewels, she pawned me as a whelp to Big Wang, a.k.a. the King of Hell, to pay her shopping debts. And then she went and died before she could claim me back.

Yeah, sob, sob, I know.

The swollen wood of the warehouse door creaks against my back. The red brick building, one of a row of identical squat brick structures lining the Whangpoo River, is past its prime, worn and weathered from the humidity. It would be easy enough for Big Wang to make the warehouses shiny and new, but he prefers them this way. Gives the place character, he says. I shimmy the fine cotton qipao up my thighs and stand with my legs as wide as the form fitting-dress will allow. It’s hotter than the Hearths of Hell out here. I run my tongue over my gums, sore but still smooth, fantasizing about the nice tall glass of ice-cold blood I’ll earn for this errand. Three days old, my favorite — when it gets just the right amount of pétillant tingle.

My feet ache so I slide one from its silk slipper — a tiny, tight, ridiculous thing more useful as a torture instrument than an item of clothing — and massage my cramping arch. Big Wang is probably expecting another of his rotted collectibles. One of his beloved tortoises maybe, or a koi for his pond, but the damned delivery is late. Impatience and hunger war inside me. Much as I’d like to leave I can’t. Sweat prickles down my back, so I gather my hair, twist it into a makeshift bun off my skin then unbutton the collar of my qipao and try to fan myself. There’s no respite. Even the breeze burns hot.

Most people know the decadent, divided version of Shanghai on the other side of the veil—a foreign enclave nestled in the tender-as-tofu ta-tas of the Middle Kingdom. The mortals call it Paris of the East, New York of the West. Their version of my city teems with yang qi—violent, virulent, vibrant life force; an unending playground for foreign powers, merchants, and gangsters, all vying to dominate. But the most inviolable rule of the Cosmos is balance. Yang cannot exist without yin. Mortal Shanghai is no different. We yaojing—deities and demons alike—have a yin version of our own: immortal Shanghai, the glittering capital of Hell.

On our side of the veil—the Hell side—the deserted river flows black and thick in the gloom. But through the veil, smoky shadows of mortal boats crowd the currents. Large junks with their bat-wing sails ghost across the water, smaller sampans bounce in their wake while floating among them are dark rectangular shapes. Coffins. More and more these days. Civil unrest in the mortal world, compounded by foreign powers eager to butcher the Middle Kingdom into trophy cuts of meat, floods immortal Shanghai with ghosts. A few years ago, the Japanese bombed Zhabei, Shanghai’s Chinese quarter. The ghost ferries docked at our ports, one after another, in a never-ceasing convoy of death.

The sour, sweet stench of rotting plants and brine burns my nose. Mixed into the cocktail of scents is one that makes me gag and salivate at the same time: the unmistakable reek of bloated corpses full of blood. My fangs, tiny white claws, pierce through my gums. The pinch in my belly grows, gnawing upwards until it is a burning thirst that lines my throat with needles. The sudden slap of water against wood sends fear pebbling across my skin despite the sodden heat. My fangs retract, the bloodlust fades. I press hard against the door, though I know I’m a safe distance from the water. The wood creaks in protest and it takes a few seconds before I understand it’s only the approach of a sampan. With effort, I peel myself away from the door so I don’t break the weathered wood by accident. I’ve never liked the water. Thank Tian it never rains here.

As the dark shape of a sampan approaches the fog boundary I rearrange my qipao, tugging the pale blue fabric past my knees and redoing my collar button. Big Wang, like all yaojing, is quite conservative about these things. One of those bitch fox-spirits from my grandmother’s court reported me for showing too much leg and I had to peel garlic in the Cathay Hotel’s kitchens for a month, in apology for my disregard of Confucian virtues and ‘offending my ancestors’. What a load of piss-fart. It took a month for me to stop sneezing and another before I stopped reeking of the stuff.

The scratch of a match and the hiss of a flame pull my attention back to the river.

”Boh-yo-boh-lo-mi.” A gruff voice utters the words which pierce the barrier to our Shanghai.

From the murky dark emerges a dingy sampan, more sliver of bark than boat. A squat man steps off the open stern onto the rickety dock. The wood creaks under his bare feet. Over his shoulder, he balances a large, lumpy sack and from his mouth dangles a glowing joss stick. As he makes his way up the gangplank, coils of blue smoke spiral in the air behind him, releasing the scent of sandalwood into the night. He stops at the edge of the dirt road, twenty paces from me, and dumps his cargo with a grunt. The delivery is much larger than I expected. The mortal doesn’t come any closer; he is no fool. He may have a pass from Big Wang to enter and leave our realm as long as the joss stick burns, though it’s no guarantee of safety. His blood and yang qi sing to me, but I keep my distance. Big Wang forgives me many of my failings, both accidental and intentional, but even I know not to harm his couriers.

I press against the door again, this time not from fear but out of caution. The mortal bows in my direction, low, as befitting a mortal to a yaojing. He doesn’t know what I am, only that I’m dangerous. Slowly, the mortal shuffles backwards, an eye on the shadows where I stand, retracing his steps to his sampan, back to mortal Shanghai. His scent lingers and makes me shudder with want. Only when his sampan is safely across the veil do I approach the roughly woven bag. It’s an awkward shape, all bulges and strange angles. I reach for the sack. The thing inside wriggles, then a mortal-shaped form sits up.

I jump back three feet. What the Hells?

The scent is so strong now that my knees wobble and I’m forced to hold my breath. Tian. The siren song wasn’t from the mortal with the joss stick. It’s coming from the bag. My fangs extend fully, my gums throb, I can’t see straight. This is no stale blood. There’s a live mortal in that bag, pulsing with blood that’s rich, sweet, fragrant, and cloying as a tan hua, the ephemeral white flower that blooms once a year in the dead of night and dies at sunrise—a fitting metaphor for such a delicious smelling mortal in Hell. My skin tingles and I swallow over and over because I can’t stop salivating. I’ve never been this close to a living, breathing mortal, and it makes my head spin. Big Wang did say he had a surprise for me. We’ve been arguing about my upcoming birthday: in a couple weeks, I turn one hundred years young. I am expected to embrace my title and position at court, something I have absolutely no intention of doing. Maybe the delivery is a peace offering, though I wouldn’t bet on it. Still holding my breath, I crouch over the bag to untie it.

The rope falls free, the bag unpeels like a plump mandarin to reveal a thirty-something-year-old man wearing a light grey Western-style suit, popular among the trendier Shanghainese these days. Gone are the changpao robes with their mandarin collars, replaced by the newest fashions from the West, arriving via the endless stream of cruise ships and magazines and talking pictures. The man has smooth skin, clear brown eyes, and a cow lick in his dark hair. He regards me with bright eyes and a beaming smile. I take a careful, shallow breath. Healthy. Not a whiff of the sickness usually tainting the corpses dredged from the river.

With a resounding slap, he slams his fist into his palm and bows with such enthusiasm I can’t help but stare.

“This unintelligent one has long admired your glory, most venera- ble Lady Jing,” he says, his tone confident and cheerful, like he is pleased to meet me.

I frown. No one is ever pleased to meet me. “How do you know who I am?”

A broad smile sets off dimples in his cheeks and his whole being exudes a childlike eagerness. He reminds me of an overgrown puppy. ‘The most noble Yan Luo Wang instructed this humble one to offer my lowly self to virtuous Lady Jing. Abundant gratitude for awaiting this tardy one’s arrival.’

Offer to me? He must be a gift: a willing snack. Big Wang actually did something thoughtful. This is unexpected and I’m both excited and nervous. My blood always comes in a glass with a straw—I’m not sure I like the idea of feeding from a live mortal. What if he moves or makes strange noises? But then the bloodlust takes me and dissipates all those thoughts until the only thing I see, hear, and smell is the blood pulsing at his throat. I lean in, stretch my jaws wide.

The man makes a strangled noise, jerks back and shoves a hand between my face and his throat. In it is a small black card splashed with three crimson characters. A muted warning nags at the back of my mind. I shake my head to clear the fug and squint at the card. The characters in bold red strokes slowly come into focus. Yan Luo Wang. Big Wang’s full name. I jerk away from the mortal and his tempting scent.

The card in his hand is an official invitation to Hell from the King himself. I scramble back to put some space between me and my almost-drink. Too close. Snacking on Big Wang’s guest would have earned me another long lecture and probably half a year peeling garlic.

“Lift high your honourable hand,’ he says, a little less confidently this time, ‘and guide this one who is beneath you to the venerable King of Hell, Yan Luo Wang.”

My shoulders twitch at the courtly piss-fart. Why can’t he just say please don’t hurt me? Lift high your honourable hand. It doesn’t even make sense.

I snarl at him, baring my fangs and my irritation. He blanches, grabs at his neck and pulls out a battered silver bi—a coin-sized disc with a square hole in the centre and stamped with anti-demon incantations. It’s meant to conceal the mortal’s true nature from yaojing and act as an official ministry pass for safe conduct through Hell. Strictly speaking, while yaojing dislike yin silver, it isn’t debilitating. Afterall, yin silver is an export from the Hulijing Court, where it exists in abundance beneath the mountains of Turquoise Hills. None of my hulijing elders suffer from handling yin silver. They seem to be inured to it but whatever I’ve inherited from my deadbeat dad makes my skin blister and my eyes and nose burn if I get too close. The last time I came across a Ministry of Thunder and Storm talisman, small as it was, my eyes stung from five paces away. This bi doesn’t even tickle my nose. I lean forward and lightly pinch the charm between my finger and thumb. Nothing. No heat, no rash, not even a tiny wave of nausea. It’s fake.

I laugh, startling the mortal, then just as quickly understand how much mafan this means for me. There is no way I can simply walk the mortal to Big Wang. My temper simmers, threatening to erupt. If I can’t get him safely to Big Wang I won’t get my glass of blood. All because the rotted mortal couldn’t tell the difference between real yin silver and a cheap imitation.
“I hope you didn’t part with too many silver taels for this,” I say, tone sharp with irritation and hunger.

He tries to shuffle away from me, which is a bit difficult since his legs are half-inside the burlap sack, and I’m holding onto the bi around his neck.

“It was worth it! The old woman said Lord Lei blessed it himself.” His earnest panic only angers me. Foolish mortal.

“Lord Lei, the Lord of Thunder? Bless this shit stick?” My laughter is as harsh as the shrieking cicadas. “If this were a real talisman from the Ministry blessed by Old Lei, yes, that would grant you safe passage through Hell. But this? This won’t even get you passage into the nearest latrine.”

“This humble one followed the most exalted and virtuous Yan Luo Wang’s instructions to the letter. This humble one paid what the learned and noble Yan Luo Wang said to pay the old woman.”

‘Oh for Hell’s sake, shut up with the courtly crap. I need to think.’

Without the talisman neutralising the scent of his blood and yang qi, the mortal will be a beacon to all yaojing. While the hypocrites look down on my weakness for blood, it’s not like they’re any better, drooling over mortal yang. I stand, brushing the dust off my dress. Understanding what I need to do to get this mortal safely to Big Wang does not improve my mood.

“That”—-I point to the black card clutched in the mortal’s fist—”is what gets you into Hell. But without Lord Lei’s talisman—”

“But this humble—” His gaze darts to my pretty, shiny, sharp teeth. ‘Uh—I paid good money for this. Is Lady Jing sure—”

“Hold your tongue if you want to keep it in your head. And don’t interrupt me.”

He cowers, then shifts to his knees and throws his arms out as he kowtows, over and over, knocking his forehead against the dirt. “Lift high your honourable hand, this humble, I mean, uh, I, most unworthy, I beseech your glory, lift high your honourable hand, lift high your honourable hand.” His voice increases in pitch with each soft thud against the ground.

I tilt my head back to look at the starless sky, taking a deep breath. Big Wang always says count to ten, slowly, before you do anything rash.

”Yi. Er. San,” I count, and keep counting, nice and slow, until I hit ten. The irritation recedes, despite the mortal’s continued kowtowing.

“Please,” he whimpers.

His whimper incinerates my hard-won calm. The weak should never show their vulnerabilities. He might as well offer me his neck. This fool has no sense of self-preservation. The next time his forehead hits dirt, I step on his head. He struggles beneath the finely embroidered cricket and yellow butterfly of my blue silk slippers. Do not stomp his head into a porridge of bone and brain. I repeat this mantra three times—part of the anger management techniques Big Wang is making me learn. Then I count to fifty this time before I speak.

“I am not going to eat you. I am not going to let you get eaten. For the love of holy yang, shut the fuck up.”

He finally stills. I curse Big Wang. He told me I should bring the ‘package’ directly to his private quarters in the penthouse of the Cathay Hotel. I can’t risk taking the mortal through the front doors. The hotel’s swarming with deities and demons attending the Ministerial Mahjong Council; they’ll be on him like locusts on a rice paddy. If he had a real talisman, we could walk straight through the lobby, even wander through the Mahjong Council, and none would be the wiser. Apart from my red eyes and sneezing and all the blisters that is. Without the talisman, the only feasible route to the penthouse is up the side of the building.

“‘Lady Jing is not going to kill me?” He gets up from his knees, slowly stands, and looks at me with doe eyes. My hand itches to slap him.

The mortal is a full head taller than me. Broad, with a strong jaw and long full lashes like a rotted deer. Not bad looking. Still, I suck my teeth. None of those things are going to make it any easier to carry a large living lump reeking of blood and yang through the streets of immortal Shanghai.

He holds his hand out to me. “‘I’m Tony. Tony Lee.” His voice, like his hand, trembles.

My instinct is to swat his hand away; how dare he presume to touch me without invitation. Instead, mindful of my temper and my task, I grab his outstretched hand, and in one motion swing him over my shoulder like a fur stole, his body curved around my neck, legs dangling over one shoulder. It’s not very comfortable. Especially as he is trying, unsuccessfully, to escape my grip.

“Lady Jing! Please! This is unseemly!” His voice is squeaky with indignation.

The closeness of his pulsing blood makes me grit my teeth. His head hangs over my right shoulder; I have a clear view of his face and he of mine.

“Mr Lee, listen to me carefully. You do not have a valid Lei talisman. Do you understand what that means?”

He stops squirming. His silence tells me he does.

Big Wang might be the King of Hell, but it’s the Ministry of Thunder and Storm that controls passage through Tian—the Celestial lands and the realms of Hell. Without the talisman, he might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign that says: Free Buffet.

“I will bring you to Big Wang. But if you want to make it there alive with your prenatal qi intact, keep yourself tucked in tight around me and your mouth pinched shut. The smell of your yang qi is most noticeable when you breathe. Hell is full of hungry spirits, and you, mortal, make for a mouth-watering midnight snack.”

Shanghai Immortal will be released on October 31, 2023, but you can preorder it right now!

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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