Black Water Sister • 2021 • Urban Fantasy novel by Zen Cho

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Synopsis: Jessamyn just graduated from Harvard but didn’t manage to find a real job, yet. She moves with her parents back to Malaysia where they live in a relative’s home. She starts to hear a voice in her head, claiming to be the ghost of her grandmother Ah Ma. 

Ah Ma was a spirit medium of the eponymous deity. She can’t leave this world until she’s got her revenge with a gang boss and decided that Jess will help her. 

Juggling ghosts, gods, and rich sons of gang bosses is dangerous business in which Jess gets tangled up. At least she wants to stay in control of her own body.

Review: The author is coming up a lot of times currently: Just recently, I’ve reviewed her excellent novelette “If at First you Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”, re-published in Tidhar’s Best of World SF. Her Fantasy short story “Hikaya Sri Bujang, or The Tale of the Naga Sage” (review) was published within Strahan’s anthology The Book of Dragons. Both feature Asian folklore in a Magical Realism setting, just like this novel. 

The story’s plot is straightforward and easy to follow, but fun. There is a lot of fast-paced action in it, some of them quite dark. I loved the exotic setting which the author brought forth using a lot of local terminology around food and religious traditions. The narration just draws you into vivid Penang. 

One storyline that didn’t work as well was the lesbian relationship of Jess with her patient girlfriend abroad. I understand that romances draw a lot of readers into a story, but this character stayed flat and distant all the time. It transported the homophobic culture of Malaysia, but that’s about it. 

In contrast, the grandmother’s ghost nearly stole Jess’s show as main protagonist. Ah Ma dropped witty one-liners but is also dark and secretive, providing a couple of twists to the plot. Jess as a typical American millenial is partly nondescript, doesn’t have much agency overall. You’ll either love her from page one, or can’t really connect like me. 

Recommended for fans of Urban Fantasy looking for an exotic setting. 

Meta: isbn 9781529118735. Published at 10.06.2021 by Pan Macmillan, UK.

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