Things just got weird for Prudence Wu.
One minute, she’s cashing in on a routine smuggling deal. The next, she’s escaping enforcers on the wings of what very much appears to be a sentient cybernetic dragon.
Pru is used to life throwing her some unpleasant surprises–she goes to prep school, after all, and selling banned media across the border in a country with a ruthless corporate government obviously has its risks. But a cybernetic dragon? That’s new.
She tries to forget about the fact that the only reason she’s not in jail is because some sort of robot saved her, and that she’s going to have to get a new side job now that enforcers are on to her. So she’s not exactly thrilled when Rebelwing shows up again.
Even worse, it’s become increasingly clear that the rogue machine has imprinted on her permanently, which means she’d better figure out this whole piloting-a-dragon thing–fast. Because Rebelwing just happens to be the ridiculously expensive weapon her government needs in a brewing war with its neighbor, and Pru’s the only one who can fly it.
Set in a wonderfully inventive near-future Washington, D.C., this hilarious, defiant debut sparkles with wit and wisdom, deftly exploring media consumption, personal freedoms, and the weight of one life as Pru, rather reluctantly, takes to the skies.
Thanks for doing this interview, and congratulations on your debut!
The world-building in this book is so rich, with so many fun elements that are evocative of anime and classic sci-fi but still unique to your vision. What would you say were your main influences while creating the world of REBELWING?
In terms of basic visual worldbuilding, a lot of old school mecha anime (like pretty much everything in the Gundam series) for sure, as well as more recent homages to the genre like Pacific Rim! In terms of voice and mood, I actually looked toward more contemporary coming-of-age fiction, as well as memories of my own experiences and viewpoint as a kid around Pru’s age, which may or may not have included an ill-advised deep dive into some journaling I did in high school that we need never speak of again. Ultimately, I really wanted to create a high-flying genre adventure, but told through the voice and perspective of a modern-sounding teen!
You can arguably draw a direct line from the oversized influence of corporate power in the United States today to that of the United Continental Confederacy Incorporated in your book. While creating the UCC’s counterpart, the Barricade Coalition, did you draw inspiration from or research any specific real-life revolutionaries, revolutions, or even activist movements?
Sure! There’s a lot to be said for the way various civil wars and revolutions have birthed unique – and often very delicately-balanced – systems of government around our modern world, but my most immediate source of real-life inspiration probably comes from the actual history of the North American continent. The closest “model” I had for the Partition Wars was the American Revolution, with its larger-than-life and frequently mythologized figureheads, heavy involvement of foreign powers, and use of innovative warfare and espionage tactics. That said, I also spent a decent amount of time considering secession movements in Quebec and Texas, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and even the Louisiana Purchase. Much of my overarching interest was in the notion of constantly mobile borders – territory that expands or diminishes depending on how politics play out – which was pretty key to creating the tensely divided North America of REBELWING.
Science fiction and fantasy have only fairly recently come under scrutiny for their historical lack of diversity. How important was it to you to write a protagonist of Chinese descent like Pru, and to have her and her friends right there on the front cover of the book?
It was definitely an important choice for me on a few different levels! I wanted to create a Chinese-American kid who got to star in a genre epic and fight bad guys and fly literal dragons because yes, representation matters, especially fun representation, but I think it also wound up adding a lot of great layers to my narrative worldbuilding. Writing a cast predominantly made up of the children and grandchildren of immigrants allowed me to paint this multilingual, multicultural setting that felt very true to a futuristic North America – which in turn also added dimensions to the in-universe censorship and culture wars on a more personal level.
Much of SFF YA downplays or diminishes the role of adults in teens’ lives; REBELWING is a refreshing change of pace, with adult characters who are imperfect, complex, and very much present. Was this a conscious choice on your part? And would you ever consider writing a prequel series about the adults in their Partition War heyday? (Had to ask the latter, as fans!)
So, I love this question, and actually have three different answers, so please do bear with me! Number one comes from my shifting relationship with the adults in my own life as I got older. One of the weirdest, most challenging and fascinating things I had to learn throughout my teens, and even more recently into my twenties, was that people I thought of as “real adults” — most notably my parents – are complex humans with layered histories, capable of being every bit as messy as I am. So when writing for young adults, I really wanted to make sure I captured not only that reality, but also Pru’s gradual realization of that reality.
Number two comes from my own fascination with the notion of legacy – how in a lot of ways, we’re all carrying things that a previous generation left behind, for better or worse. Depending on the circumstances, maybe we want to preserve those things, maybe we want to burn them down, maybe we want to run away from it all and take a nap, but the expectation of responsibility always feels present. I wanted to tackle the ways different characters would relate differently to that responsibility – whether it would be seen as privilege, burden, neither, or both – but in order to really sink into a true multi-generational saga, I do think the old guard has to feel very real and present, even if they’re not at the forefront of the action.
Which leads into number three – every time I’ve read a big YA genre novel, I’ve always wondered what kind of adults those teen heroes grew up into. Particularly in books that deal with massive societal upheaval – wherein an evil dictatorship gets overthrown, for example – I’m continually curious about the work that happens after the big sexy revolution, and who becomes responsible for cementing the victory, rebuilding the society, and keeping the “happy ending” alive. So in some ways, the adults of REBELWING, many of them former teen heroes in their own right, were created to answer at least part of that question!
P.S. I would be 100% down to tell some prequel-ish stories about the adults of REBELWING, incidentally! The kids of REBELWING really don’t fall far from the tree, and the older generation got up to a lot of hijinks in their youth that never quite made it on to the page, which I’d love to explore more fully one day.
What other SFF books do you think yours is in conversation with? Any works by marginalized authors that you’d particularly recommend for readers who enjoyed your book?
I’d be absolutely remiss not to plug Axie Oh’s REBEL SEOUL and recent companion novel ROGUE HEART – Axie’s work was the first I’d ever heard of mecha featuring in a non-visual storytelling medium, which arguably helped open the door for other anime-inspired YA like my own book! She also does an incredible job of making a heavily prose-based medium feel just as visual as its traditionally cinematic forbears – ten pages into REBEL SEOUL, I’d half forgotten I was reading a book, because it felt exactly like watching a K-drama episode crossed with some of my favorite old school anime. She had the tone, the emotional beats, the visuals, even the dialogue style down pat. It’s a unique, super cool skill that Axie wields masterfully, and I’m really excited to see what she comes up with next!
I also like to flatter myself by placing REBELWING in conversation with Victoria Lee’s brilliant THE FEVER KING (of the FEVERWAKE duology). Victoria’s work contains possibly some of the smartest sociopolitical scene-setting I’ve seen in recent SFF, which is – at least to my own understanding! — very much informed by her background as a queer Jewish writer. I think that as traditionally marginalized storytellers, we play with a lot of similar material: we both carve a speculative setting out of the existing real world landscape of North America, which subtly but significantly informs our narrative choices; we’re both deeply interested in how individual psychology – especially one person’s private wants and needs and hurts and loves – might create ripple effects in the broader macrocosm of power politics; and ultimately, I think we also both pen speculative fiction as love letters to hope, and to the resiliency of human kindness – to the notion that even amidst tremendous bleakness and cruelty, tenderness can still be found.