Black Water Sister

Black Water Sister

2021 • 370 pages


Average rating3.8


It's more of a 3.5 but I am rounding up.

CW: Attempted kidnapping/rape.

I have thought about reading Zen Cho's fantasy books many times before, but my TBR is enormous and I hardly ever find time to read backlist titles. But when I first saw the cover of Black Water Sister, I was immediately impressed and adding it to my list, despite not usually going for paranormal or urban fantasy stories. Having been very glad for getting the ARC, I started reading it and completely felt immersed in this spooky world.

I think I've read only a couple of novels set in Malaysia, so it was quite fascinating to be in this setting. The author also does a great job bringing Penang to life, especially the multi-religious diversity of the place as well the deep beliefs in gods and mediums. As someone who has grown up religious but whose relationship with faith has changed over the years, the idea of ghosts and gods and possession, as well as other superstitions that form a major part of this story, didn't feel impossible to me at all and I could feel myself transported into this world. The plot is also very interesting - involving past family secrets, a high capital real estate project, a god with an incomplete revenge who is unhappy with the project affecting her temple, and a young woman already stressed with her move from America and a secret of her own, now trying to figure out a way out of her supernatural entanglements. The pacing did feel a little slow at times but it picked up immediately, and the dialogue with a generous use of Hokkien and Malay words as well as a very informal style of speaking definitely helped with my enjoyment. However, I have a feeling that this might feel even better as an audiobook if narrated by someone who knows the language.

Jess was such a relatable protagonist. While being a lesbian was an important part of her identity and she was very scared about telling her parents the truth, this is not a coming out story and I liked that, because we deserve all kinds of stories with LGBT+ protagonists. While she is natually skeptical initially about the whole possession by a ghost thing, it was very interesting to see her come to terms with it, and then struggle everyday to fulfil her grandmother's wishes while also trying not to lose herself. At the same time, she is also dealing with her family situation, especially her mother's fragile mental state and her father's hardships. There were times I really got mad at her mom because I thought she was emotionally blackmailing Jess and I don't know if that was what the author wanted to project, but it was too close to my heart not to react that way. Over the years, I have really come to resent most Asian parents' expectation of their child to be filial forever at the expense of their own desires, and I guess I have become prone to react emotionally to such situations even in a fictional story. However, I appreciated how Jess kept her cool even in dire circumstances and took decisive actions when necessary. It felt like she gained confidence and clarity about herself by the end of the story and I loved that for her. I don't have much to say about other side characters, coz they didn't leave much of an impression on me except Ah Ma, who was a grumpy ghost grandma and her interactions with Jess were mostly quite funny.

In the end, while there were some things that didn't feel upto the mark for me, this was still a well written enjoyable story and I would love to read more about the author. There were also times where I felt the resolutions felt too convenient, but I guess that's not too unexpected in a book full of ghosts and gods. With a very brave protagonist at the centre, the author has woven an intricate story of family, faith and identity that will transport you into the setting and make you believe in Jess's convictions.

April 22, 2021Report this review