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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Book Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister
by Zen Cho
May 11, 2021
380 pages
Publisher: Ace
"A sharp and bittersweet story of past and future, ghosts and gods and family, that kept me turning pages into the dark hours of the night."—Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

“Ghosts, gods, and supernatural vengeance collide in vividly-depicted modern day Malaysia to create a contemporary fantasy story that's full of voice and heart.”--Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

This was my first Zen Cho read, even though Sorcerer to the Crown has been languishing on my shelves since forever. So, I was hoping this one was going to be really good. Like most books, it was and wasn’t.

What I Liked
The cover.
It is just and made me want to pick up the book immediately.

The setting.
Malaysia came alive in the hands of the author. Since it’s literally a jumble of cultures, you can see that richness reflected in its cuisine, religion, and culture. I walked the busy streets of Malaysia with Jess as I read the book because that’s how well it’s described in the book.

The writing.
All of Jess’s relatives speak English with a decidedly Malaysian twist. Most of the time, an author’s attempt to convey that can quickly become irritating to readers. Whether it was the way it was written or something else, I didn’t find that to be the case with Black Water Sister.

The humor.
Ah Ma had a strong, overbearing personality. Some of her lines were real zingers. The way her son surrenders and goes with her kooky plans was funny and familiar to see too. I have been raised by such women, so I could totally get why he found it easier to just go along lol.

What I Didn’t Like
The history. 
Black Water Sister’s backstory (the character, not the book). Without giving away anything, why did it have to be so run-of-the-mill? And why was what happened to her the only way she could turn into a vengeful and highly powerful spirit?

The protagonist.
Jess was a very bland character! She’s like every other teenager you’d meet. I would have put up with that if it hadn’t been for the way she tackled the supernatural problem she had on her hands. Most of the time, things happened to her, and Jess reacted to them. If a goddess who looks like the main character from the movie Ring followed me home, the least I can do is be proactive in getting rid of her. Right?

The gloss-over. 
Ah Ma’s a problematic character. Most millennials with grandparents will immediately get what I’m saying. So, that didn’t bother me as much. What did irk me was the glossing over of some not-so-nice things that Ah Ma did.

All in all, a good read. Also, yay, that I found another new-to-me-author that I like!

Rating: 3 solid, woolly sheep

Reviewer: Midu Reads

About the Author:
Zen Cho is the author of a short story collection (Spirits Abroad, 2014) and two historical fantasy novels (Sorcerer to the Crown, 2015 and The True Queen, 2019). She has won the Crawford Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Zen was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two.

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