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Fantasy Review – Black Water Sister

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


Jessamyn Teoh has graduated Harvard, but she’s unemployed, still living with her parents, and a closeted lesbian.  But her dad’s health isn’t good, they’re also broke and have decided to move back to Malayasia. As a dutiful daughter who truly loves her parents, she’s going too, leaving behind her girlfriend.  They move in with her father’s sister, who has a big house and innumerable relatives who are always dropping in, ready to discuss the failings of anyone in the family.

There’s enough stress that when she starts hearing a voice in her head, she dismisses it at first. But it turns out this is not a hallucination – it’s the ghost of her grandmother Ah Ma, and Ah Ma is capable of taking over Jess’s body. Ah Ma has a purpose in mind, which she tells Jess is to save a particular small temple in danger of being torn down for developers.  Ah Ma was a medium for one of the gods – Black Water Sister – in this temple, and the god is angry.  But the temple’s plight is only an excuse.

As it turns out, Jess is not the only one in this family keeping secrets.  Events careen out of control almost immediately, with Jess alternately attempting to kick Ah Ma out of her head and then beseeching her to come back and help Jess out of life-threatening crises.  To make it even worse, Black Water Sister has taken ominous notice of Jess.

The book starts out feeling rather lighthearted, but it gets quite dark before Jess manages to placate the gods and others.  It does get a bit complicated towards the end, what with all the various shifting relationships and gods appearing and disappearing. The Malaysian setting is great, very different and very vivid, and the dialect makes it come alive. I liked the sense of place and I liked how Cho educated the reader about the gods and cultural practices via Jess, who hadn’t lived in Malaysia since she was a toddler.  I also loved how the family drama just gets deeper and deeper.   A good, fast-paced and intense fantasy.




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