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Sapphic Yearning, Horror, and K-Pop Blend Perfectly in “Gorgeous Gruesome Faces”

If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a book about pop stars. I’m not really a K-pop person, but as a person who loves pop stars, I find the whole world of K-pop fascinating from a behind-the-scenes aspect. If you throw in a dash of folklore and make it sapphic? That’s like gold. Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng checks those boxes — plus it has some seriously awesome horror elements.

Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is told from the perspective of Sunny, a teenage girl who was part of an American K-pop style group that formed on a K-drama. At her audition, Sunny recognizes Candie, a beautiful girl and performer, from her YouTube videos, which Sunny is obsessed with. Rounding out the group is Mina, who is also the catalyst for the action of the book. When we meet the girls, their group Sweet Cadence has broken up and their show has been canceled because of a scandal involving Sunny and Mina. Candie and Sunny go to check on Mina and find their friend in a bad place mentally and physically. To free herself of the pain she’s going through, Mina jumps off of a balcony to her death.

Mina’s death plunges Sunny into a deep depression — one so bad that Sunny asks her mother, an entertainment manager, if they can leave Los Angeles for Georgia, where she can escape the demons of her past. Or so she thinks. Even though she’s lost touch with Candie, Sunny is still obsessively watching her social media videos. So when she learns that not only is Candie in Georgia but that she’s going to be part of a new singing group, Sunny decides to audition for the group, even though she has given up pop stardom. With Candie back in her life, Sunny can finally confront what happened to Mina and make her peace with it. The story is told in two timelines: Then and Now, but they’re not used evenly. It’s more about what moment fits the story.

Sunny is desperately in love with Candie. It’s clear from the way she talks about the way she obsessively watches her videos before they end up being groupmates in Sweet Cadence. I totally get why Sunny is attracted to her: Candie is enigmatic, and you can’t help but be drawn to her. Even as a reader, I wanted Candie to notice me. Because of her love for Candie, Sunny will subject herself to the horrors of the maiden and everything that entails to save her. Sunny will endure horrors to make sure Candie survives. The trials and tribulations she is willing to go through are a testament to the intense love she has for Candie.

We know there is something between them based on how they act around each other, but for so long Candie is so focused on other things that you have to wonder if she still has feelings for Sunny. But they do get their opportunity to reunite, and it’s so so good.

I loved the way K-pop superstardom is used as a plot device in this story. We have all heard about how rigorous and borderline abusive these boot camp-style training sessions can be, and that plays right out on the page. We are with Sunny and the other girls as they practice and practice and drill themselves to be perfect. It never feels over the top or fake. Since I’m big on 90s pop stars, which is always what K-pop feels like, I found myself thinking that this is exactly what the audition process would feel like. Is it a little horrifying? Of course. But in the context of this story, it’s also wholly necessary.

The K-pop dreams are intricately tied to Asian folklore in the story. I love seeing Cheng finding ways to make a connection between these different cultural elements in a really fresh way. Candie is involved in a ritualistic cult that descends from an ancient maiden who was put up on a pedestal for her beauty and desirability. If that doesn’t feel like an analogy for modern day pop starlets, I don’t know what would. It may feel too easy, but I don’t think so. There are still too many people who haven’t been able to draw those parallels in real life to say that the analogy feels like low-hanging fruit or too on the nose.

Female pop singers are held to impossibly high beauty standards, and as a result, the women who make up their fanbase hold themselves up to impossible beauty standards. K-pop singers are branded and commodified even more than American pop singers are if you can believe it. Female K-pop stars are sold as the epitome of the performance of femininity, defined by the delicate features of the members, who are often posing in a line wearing typically feminine clothing. They sing in largely higher registers that are exclusive to their style of music. But it’s all performance, and you have to assume they’re incredibly different in reality.

The folklore of the maiden who has given all of herself to those she serves but now inhabits other’s bodies to take back what’s hers feels almost too perfect, but I honestly love it. Even though she’s not Korean, I immediately thought of Britney Spears and how she’s broken herself into pieces to serve people who only want to take things from her. Sunny, Candie, and the other girls trying out for the group are being infused with pieces of the maiden, who is hellbent on her own form of revenge. But in reality, she only wants to put the broken pieces of herself back together. The thing is, she has to destroy everything to do so.

I’ve never really been a horror girlie, but in recent months, I’ve found myself intrigued by YA books that have a horror element. The horror elements of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces aren’t there for shock value, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Cheng does a great job of blending Asian folklore and horror in ways that feel totally natural, but at the same time utterly unsettling. The first time we see the body horror is right at the beginning when Sunny and Candie go to Mina. The maiden is ravaging her body, distorting her face and making her almost unrecognizable to her friends. There are thriller elements to the story too, especially in the pacing and the balance between the Then and Now moments. By the end, I was gripping the book.

From what I can tell, there is supposed to be another book that follows this one, and I am very here for it, as the end of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces has the perfect open ending that lends to a sequel. If you’re looking for something that’s twisty, dark and beautiful, this is the book for you.

Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng is out now.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 125 articles for us.

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