Published by Ace Books on May 11, 2021
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Fiction
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A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there's only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she's determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god--and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she'll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
When I first heard of this lesbian ghost thriller set in Malaysia featuring an Asian main character, I was totally on board, and started the audiobook right away. I haven’t read anything by Zen Cho before, but this cover and premise totally drew me in and I needed to find out more.
A melting pot of cultures in Malaysia
For those of you who don’t know, Malaysia is actually where I was born, although I didn’t experience much of the culture having moved to the West promptly afterwards. This is what I looked forward to most out of Black Water Sister, and it certainly delivered – bringing to life the melting pot of cultures, religions and the mix of languages from Chinese, to Hokkien to Haka. There are also some cultural attitudes that it brings to life, such as the divide between the rich and the poor, the superstitious nature of the country, and wanting to be a filial daughter.
As Malaysia is a superstitious country, it was interesting hearing about the hobknob blend of ghosts, religion and the supernatural affecting people’s actions. Jess herself is possessed by her dead grandmother and the fury of an obscure God, the Black Water Sister. There was some interesting banter between Jess and her grandmother in her head, along with the disconnect with her parents and harbouring the secret of her queerness.
An estranged grandma using her granddaughter for revenge
While it starts off strong, Black Water Sister is equally messy and convoluted as the book went on. Most of the book veers towards her ancestor’s actions who want to take vengeance on a rich business man, and Jess is kind of along for the ride. She’s essentially being used by the ghostly spirit, and while it does come in handy when she needs to defend herself, it’s not really about her at all. Maybe that’s where the plot fell down for me, I wanted to hear more about Jess as a character, not about her dead grandma taking retribution against her past. It essentially overtakes the plot.
The relationship between Jess and her grandma is kind of tense, and then leans towards a gradual acceptance later on, as her grandma certainly isn’t matronly at all. There’s something ruthless about a ghost who puts your own granddaughter in harm’s way – and there’s certainly a lot of danger and darkness that Jess deals with here. From gangsters, to dangerous business men, vengeful spirits and Gods, it’s all here.
Too many plot points
Because the plot is so convoluted, it gets to the point where I forgot some key plot points that kind of fell by the wayside – like Jess’s dad being ill which is why they moved back to Malaysia in the first place, and how she’s a 20 something year old trying to find a job in another culture. I wanted to know more about Jess herself – her struggles with hiding her “controversial” sexual preference from her family, trying to keep a long distance relationship alive, fitting into her home country and her disconnect with the culture that she wasn’t brought up in.
Black Water Sister is definitely a unique book, one that explores an Asian sapphic medium being possessed by her grandmother, the messiness of the plot was a let down for me. I appreciated the Malaysian setting and how it explores themes of female rage and empowerment, but I definitely wanted more out of it.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Trigger warnings: sexual abuse, estranged parents, gayphobia
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