Genie Lo is an overachieving, academically focused senior at a college prep school in San Francisco. She’s also the Shouhushen and Divine Guardian of the Protectorate of California on Earth. Yeah, a lot has happened since cute Quentin—aka the teenage version of the Monkey King Sun Wukong—pounced on her in The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. And things are about to go from chaotic to uncontrollable. A great evil threatens Earth and the Jade Emperor refuses to lift a finger. Soon, several gods challenge him for the throne, but the only way to win is to defeat the Big Bad.
All Genie wants to do is sort out her feelings for her charming but sometimes annoying boyfriend, learn more about her powers, and maintain the truce between the humans and the yaoguai. Oh, and graduate and get into a top college, of course. But all that will have to wait until she gets back from an epic quest. If she gets back, that is. She, Quetin, the bodhisattva Guanyin, and assorted other companions must do battle with seemingly unbeatable forces and take on the most powerful beings in the cosmos. Their very survival depends on it.
People not from the San Francisco Bay Area have no idea what it’s really like here. Sure, there are plenty of aging hippies, NIMBYish yuppies, loud hipsters, and obnoxious techies. But there are also lots of regular people just living our lives and trying to make the best of a frenzied mix of microclimates, rapidly worsening housing crisis, inefficient public transportation, and Karl the Fog. And I say that with all the love of someone who has spent nearly all her life here in this region that is as beautiful as it is trying. The Bay Area is not for everyone (although that hasn’t stopped newcomers from forcibly trying to blandify it). It is not an easy place to live and it has its own unique rhythm that changes as often as the rent prices do.
While the City and the neighboring tech enclaves are becoming overwhelmingly white and affluent, the Bay Area as a whole is sustained and supported by its people of color and working class. Yee sets his duology in the fictional suburban city of Santa Firenza (somewhere on the northeastern part of the peninsula) and populates it with a largely Asian American cast. Trapped between the bustle of the City and the egocentrism of Silicon Valley, that part of the San Francisco peninsula is a region of suburban sprawl, congested freeways, and shopping centers.
In The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, that sense of in betweenness permeates not only her hometown but Genie herself. She follows a path well-trod by other Asian American kids: work hard in high school so you can get into a premier college so you can get a high-paying and respectable job. She walks this path not because she feels like she’s supposed to, not because she cares about any of the stops along the way. She is reaching for a goal she doesn’t care about achieving.
Enter Quentin. When The Iron Will of Genie Lo opens, Genie is still stuck on her path despite the obstacles Quentin, the Chinese pantheon, and the escaped demons have dropped in her way. The Iron Will of Genie Lo is a little less dryly funny and sweetly romantic and a little angrier than The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. When you consider the context of Genie’s life then and now, the shift makes sense. High school senior Genie has bigger problems on her hands than sophomore Genie. There are the obvious things—surviving the quest to find out what is destabilizing the multiverse and settling the challenge over the mandate of Heaven—as well as the less tangible, psychological ones.
If the first book was about learning how to adapt, the second is about knowing when to change. The old ways aren’t working, not for Genie or for Heaven. Her conflicts with her parents, her frustrations with Quentin, her idolization of Guanyin, her hesitations with her best friend Yunie, her plastic dreams of an Ivy League education, all of it is holding her back. When she was younger she could ignore all the complications piling up at her door, but now her time is up. Adulthood is just around the corner. The longer she refuses to act, the more extreme others’ reactions will be. It’s time for Genie to make a move…but first she has to figure out what moves she can make.
Genie is as much concerned with growing up as who will rule Heaven. Everyone has an opinion about both questions, but it’s up to her to make the final decision. Yee encapsulates that feeling of stumbling transition by replicating it on a mythological scale. He deftly balances the epic with the personal and the emotional with the physical and he does it all with a propulsive and engaging story. I couldn’t tell you which of the two books is better because they are perfect complements. Each book is great on its own, but it is made even better by the other.
This is a book series practically begging to be adapted into a television show. High stakes adventure, creepy supernatural monsters, steamy romance, richly drawn characters, witty dialogue, eye-popping locales, worldbuilding both intimate and expansive—what more could a showrunner want? In a just world, studios would be throwing bags of cash at F.C. Yee for rights to Genie Lo. But in the real world we’re just going to have to settle with two kick-ass novels and the undying flame of hope that maybe one day we’ll be gifted with more.
The Iron Will of Genie Lo is available from Amulet Books.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.