In a tale of a beauty and a beast, Vanna and Channari are sisters who were born to very different fates. While one was born with a round face and eyes just like her mother’s, she was cursed as a toddler to become a snake woman loathed by all. The other was born with a literal glowing heart and beauty that turned heads even as a baby. If you were in the former’s shoes, would you choose to break the curse, even if it cost you your sister’s life? Her Radiant Curse by Elizabeth Lim follows Channari on her journey, as she struggles to find a way to break the curse and save her sister from the Demon Witch, Angma.
Acting as the prequel to Lim’s best-selling duology, Six Crimson Cranes and The Dragon’s Promise, Her Radiant Curse tells the origin story of Shiori’s mother, Raikama (Channari at birth), but it can also be read as a standalone novel. Despite this being a prequel story, Her Radiant Curse was published after Six Crimson Cranes, although the story was nearly completely written beforehand. “It was a hard decision to make, actually, but once I had most of Her Radiant Curse written, I realized that the crux of the story belonged to Shiori. Also, since Shiori’s tale is a reimagining of the Wild Swans fairytale, I thought it would be more appealing to pitch to my editor,” said Lim, thinking back on why she decided to release the novels in this order. “I had a very good idea, and that really helped me develop Raikama’s character arc in Six Crimson Cranes. Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether Her Radiant Curse would ever be published, but it was nice to know that all the work and time I put into writing Raikama’s story helped enrich her character!”
Forced to choose between the life of newborn daughter Vanna and his wife, the sisters’ father chooses to sacrifice eldest daughter Channari to the Demon Witch Angma to keep his wife and newborn alive. When Channari’s life is saved by the Serpent King, however, she is instead cursed to possess a snake’s face, and she is given the gift of communicating with snakes and having their poison run through her veins. His wife unfortunately passes away, and thus begins the eldest daughter’s Cinderella tale. While being hidden away and mistreated by her father and stepmother, Channari and her younger sister Vanna still remain close. Willing to do anything for each other, Channari spends her childhood, adolescence, teenage, and early adult years training to protect Vanna from Angma. When the time comes to confront the Demon Witch, though, she discovers that she cannot do it without the help of a dragon named Hokzuh and Vanna herself.
Full of descriptive writing that evokes imagery, this book is captivating from start to finish. Lim’s biggest strength is her layered and realistic characters. Having worked on Disney’s Twisted Tales series, Lim is experienced in writing villains that are not necessarily “bad.” While Angma has mercilessly killed and done countless awful things, much like villains such as Maleficent, she also has a tragic backstory that helps readers empathize with her, even despite her heinous actions. “I think writing antagonists is one of the hardest things about putting together a story, [and] I put a lot of thought into it. A good antagonist should have needs and wants like the protagonist, and they shouldn’t necessarily view themselves as an antagonist. I was always dissatisfied by the typical villains in fairy tales, so one way I approach writing my own antagonists is to confront this dissatisfaction and flesh out their motives and backstories so the story feels fuller and truer.”
In contrast, Channari is the protagonist and therefore should inherently be the “good one,” but she also has intrusive thoughts and impulsive actions that could be considered villainous. Seeing the good in the villain and the bad in the protagonist reflects real life situations in which not everything is black and white, and everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Aside from adding depth to the character, this ambiguity to Channari is part of what makes her one of Lim’s favorites. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Channi, even after I finished writing Six Crimson Cranes and The Dragon’s Promise. My editor was skeptical about an origin story for Raikama, and she had a right to be, but I sent her a sample of Channi’s voice, and thankfully, she loved it. She’s the most complex character I’ve written – she’s so tough, yet so vulnerable, and though she does terrible things, I just love her to bits and want to hug her.”
Building up each and every character with her writing, Lim creates beautiful backstories and connections to each person featured in her story. Even if they are not enormously significant to the overall story, she does not ignore anyone. Although the story is told only from Channari’s point of view, readers can still see a glimpse into everyone’s minds as they go through each battle, each trial, and each hardship through their subtle actions. With each person and each creature described with distinct characteristics and personalities, the story is one that’s easy to fall into.
Thinking back to the start of her career, Lim notes that she used to write fanfiction, and although it was cringy to look back at them, it was all part of her journey. “Honestly, I had such a good laugh going through my old work – I did a panel at YAllfest where we authors read from old fanfiction, and it was the first time I’d set eyes on that piece since I was 13 or so. There were so many cringeworthy moments, but something that was eye-opening was seeing the dewy-eyed confidence I had when I was a middle-school writer. I think one way that I’ve evolved as a writer is that I am much more self-aware and self-conscious. It’s mostly a good thing, yet sometimes I envy the writer I used to be as a student, and I’m grateful that I kept my old work so I can look at it and see how much I’ve grown.” Aside from her writing history, Lim also has a background in musical composition, which has helped shape her way of storytelling. “Writing music and writing prose, for me, uses the same creative part of the brain, just through different mediums. I trained for over 20 years to become a composer, and I think the way that I approach writing uses many of the lessons I had in music – for instance, developing form and themes, listening to the rhythm words and cadences of speech, and being aware of the sense of time in a passage. It’s very fascinating!”
Despite the various career paths Lim could have taken, she was somehow brought back to writing, just like fate. “I never thought I’d become a writer, to be frank, but while I was training to become a composer, I did a lot of reading and writing because so much of music is deeply tied to narrative. During those years, I just found that I missed writing and creating my own stories. I thought it would be too hard to get published (and it was very hard – took me many years), but after writing and shelving half a dozen manuscripts, I couldn’t stop. I figured that was a sign to keep going.”
Showing off her ability to craft a fairytale universe and very flawed yet human characters, Lim’s Her Radiant Curse is a unique tale that’s relatable yet fantastical, and it represents a fusion of cultures that’s dear to Lim herself. “Even though I write fantasy, my books so far tend to be very true to my own identity. I’m Chinese American, and I have one foot in Western culture and one foot in Chinese culture, and it shows in my books. I grew up on a staple of fairytales like Cinderella and Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, but my parents also told me East Asian folktales and stories, like the Legend of Chang’e, the Legend of the Bamboo-Cutter, Madame White Snake, and so on. When I decided to become a writer, I wanted to combine my love for all of these tales, and create a world where they could coexist.”