I read both Porcelain: A Gothic Fairytale and its sequel Porcelain: Bone China in a single sitting. And it’s a good thing I did because had I stopped after just A Gothic Fairytale, had I told myself I’d come back to Volume 2 later on, I probably wouldn’t have felt overly motivated to follow through with that plan. That would have been a shame, because while A Gothic Fairytale left me underwhelmed, I was excited to find something I hadn’t expected in Bone China—a woman who unapologetically kicks ass in the fantasy version of a STEM field.
The stories in Volume 1 and 2 of Porcelain are very similar in a lot of ways, but ultimately Volume 1 felt like a rehashing of so many fairy tales that have come before. In A Gothic Fairy Tale we’re introduced to the Orphan—your standard streetwise Oliver Twist character.
Pressured by her friends, she breaks into the walled mansion where the “evil wizard” lives. But as it turns out, he is neither evil, nor a wizard. He’s a lonely old man, who makes animated porcelain people. He takes pity on her and decides to let her stay with him, as his ward. Overnight she goes from the streets to shelter, fine clothes and lots of cakes. Her new ‘Da’ only has one rule—she must never go into the secret locked room at the back of the workshop. Which is, of course, exactly what she does do.
Now there’s nothing terribly wrong with this volume. It does exactly what it says on the tin. But it’s safe. It’s familiar. I have read this story too many times before to want to engage with it yet again.
Bone China is a different matter entirely, despite the cyclical quality of the plot. It jumps ahead a few years. Da is gone, and the Orphan (now known as Lady) is in charge on his estate. She’s no longer his ward, or something to amuse him when he’s not working. Now she’s the master of her own domain. And because that domain comes with land, money and resources, it gives her a fair amount of power. Which would be intriguing enough on its own, but it’s what she does with this power that is really interesting. She ignores invites to all of the society events and looks down her nose at the idea of finding a good husband. Those things aren’t important to her. What’s important to Lady is her work.
In Volume 1 the Orphan is tangential to Da’s work. She’s always present, but only through her relationship to him. She amuses him, she watches him, she learns from him. But in Volume 2 Lady has gone into Da’s porcelain-making business and she’s become quite adept at it. So good that the army is constantly trying to convince her to build them porcelain soldiers for the front lines. But Lady is a powerful figure in her field, and she’s steadfast in her refusal.
One could argue that the Porcelain is created by magic, but when you actually break down the process it looks a lot more like chemistry to me—with a bit of engineering thrown in for good measure. They grind the ingredients, they have to mix them exactly right, apply heat, and so forth. It’s not just waving a wand or muttering a spell. It’s complex, it takes patience, intelligence and skill.
Lady certainly isn’t the first woman in genre fiction to excel at some kind of scientific or technical skill—Winry Rockbell from Fullmetal Alchemist and Kaylee from Firefly come to mind. But I think it’s rare to find a female character with his kind of occupation in the fairy tale genre specifically. In fairy tales women are often regulated to a few key roles: witch, evil stepmother or innocent/curious child. And it’s even rarer to find a character like lady that takes centre stage. But it’s more than just her actual job description. What I find so impressive about Bone China is that they’ve created a character that is so proud and unapologetic about her achievements and her reasons for working.
At a time when so many women experience impostor syndrome, it was refreshing to read Bone China and see a woman that was so sure of herself and her capabilities. Lady goes through a whole range of emotions throughout the story. She feels joy, fear, love, rage. But that knowledge, that certainty remains. I would love to see more characters like Lady—characters that work in a career that would often be associated with a man, and who kick ass while doing it.