Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
Runestone, volume 9
Never Have I Ever
by Isabel Yap
Runestone, volume 9
Reviewed by Gisela Perez
Throughout the thirteen stories in Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap explores the vast regions of speculative fiction—and conquers them. From urban fantasy to mythology, magical realism to sci-fi, and horror to romance, the debut collection forms a clever net of short stories. Carried out with Yap’s smooth and inquisitive prose, the book has succeeded in winning awards, including the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection of 2022.
The title, Never Have I Ever, is a subtle nod toward the overarching tone of the collection; secrecy and suspense shroud the stories within the collection. Yet, in the same vein, they are revelatory and intimate. In “Misty,” it is as if Ramona, the protagonist, is whispering never have I ever trusted my father—but the use of an unreliable narrator, a strenuous father-daughter relationship, and a second timeline add complex layers to this statement. Readers are forced to question the narrative, adding onto the eerie tension built throughout the piece. Similarly, “A Canticle for Lost Girls” whispers its own secrets about the horrors that occur in an all-girls private school. The piece centers around topics such as ruptured friendships, ostracization, consent, and predatory male figures (CW for rape). While the collection may contain monsters and the supernatural, Yap employs them as devices to reveal the perturbing core of her stories, which touch upon real world situations.
The bulk of the book lingers in the dark and fantastical, but there are occasional deviations in concept that prevent the collection from sinking with intensity. Take “A Spell for Foolish Hearts,” which is about a queer witch and his first time falling in love. Beyond being sweetly crafted, this lighthearted story provides a break from the uncanny monsters found in the surrounding stories. Likewise, the sci-fi shorts “Milagroso” and “Syringe” are a reprieve from the fantastical elements that dominate many of the stories. To lovers of the grim and eerie, though, these pauses may not be necessary; they may even seem out of place. Nonetheless, the pieces all carry Yap’s distinctive voice and stand well on their own.
Never Have I Ever is a colorful collection of speculative fiction. More than that, it is a collection that revolves around Filipino culture, mythology, and folklore. The majority of the stories are set within the Philippines, but there are also a couple that highlight the diaspora outside of the country. Having lived in both Manila and California, Yap establishes her thorough knowledge of the areas through vivid and concise descriptions. Additionally, Yap weaves in Filipino folklore and mythology as a device to discuss significant concepts and events from the region. In “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child,” Yap uses the myth of Mebuyen—once believed to be the goddess of the underworld—to depict the brutality of the War on Drugs in the Philippines.
Yap’s writing has few flaws, though her love for open endings may leave readers grasping for more. In a way, this is a good thing. It shows how compelling the stories are, but it may make some pieces feel “off” or incomplete. “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing)” is an example of this. Though, with some quick research, one can find that the piece is actually a part of a larger series posted on TheBookSmugglers’ site. In the end, some endings are more ambiguous than others, and some make it work more than others.
That said, the collection will not disappoint. With a voice that crisply strides from dark to playful, Isabel Yap’s Never Have I Ever delivers fresh spins on myths, rich characters, and keen explorations of settings and culture. In its entirety, the collection is more than satisfying.
Gisela Perez is a multi-genre writer and poet. At the heart of her works, there is an earnest desire to give comfort and foster curiosity. When she is not writing, she can be found admiring the moon from her home in Minnesota.