Summary: 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.
This is the first Zen Cho novel I’m reading and suffice to say I will be checking out their other works. Black Water Sister is an urban fantasy that follows the story of Jessamyn who moves back to Malaysia where she connects with the ghost of her grandmother and is introduced to vengeful spirits, gods and family dynamics.
Jess has just graduated from Harvard with no idea about job prospects, family problems forces her to move back to Malaysia and she’s still finding her footing as an America returned, figuring out how to come out to her parents as gay while trying to maintain a long distance relationship. Jess’s life is complicated enough but now she starts hearing her dead grandmother’s voice who has unfinished business and comes to know of the god she served.
❛It figured that she’d avoided getting nagged to go to law school, only to get nagged to become a vessel of the dead.❜
Her character is compelling, she’s trying her hardest to dodge the problems life throwed at her but more kept piling up. She makes messy decisions and is unlikeable sometimes. Cho captured the feelings of a 20-something year old struggling in life through her character perfectly. The internal conflicts that she goes through in the book ultimately make her more confident to stand up for herself.
She was relatable, minus the otherworldly part of course. It was interesting to read her come to terms with the ghostly things happening to her all the while figuring out why and fulfilling her grandmother’s and the spirit’s wishes.
Ah Ma… what a character. She’s bitter, holds a grudge and has an agenda but she’s also a snarky and funny character I loved to read. Her interactions with Jess and views on the world were so endearing and entertaining.
❛She felt a sudden rush of fondness for Ah Ma […] who’d never stopped being mad about the bad hand life had dealt her.❜
The setting of the book, in Penang, is brought to life by showing the different ethnicities to exist, the beliefs in gods and mediums, languages as well as the food. The dialogues reflected speech of the locals, Malay or Hokkien and the author dived into both Malaysian and Chinese cultures. Asian vibes felt both familiar and foreign to me. The gods and myths were explored really well to unfold the plot
Family is an important theme to the story and Jess, as she discovers past secrets. The dysfunctional family dynamics were a delight. They have been through hardships and developed a bond. I found Jess’s feelings about her relatives all too relatable, we Asians go through the same thing after all. Everyone plays a role in pushing the story forward.
While I expected a sapphic relationship, it was nothing explicit. Jess is closeted, reluctant to come out. I wished we’d gotten more light on the part as well as on her girlfriend. But then again, I understood that romance is not the focus and means for Jess’s character arc.
The pacing felt somewhat slow, I struggled getting into the book and through some chapters. Though, I flew through the action and revelation scenes.
If you’re looking for a solid Asian inspired fantasy that tackles both real life feelings and supernatural problems then you should check out Black Water Sister!
Thank you Edelweiss and Berkley Publishing for the ARC!