Black Water Sister by Zen Cho: Irresistible

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies.  As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Ghost stories excite me. A ghost story by an author I haven’t read before, impossible to miss. And Zen Cho has created a book that is compelling, dynamic, and irresistible. There are several reasons for why this novel is so good. 

First, Zen Cho is obviously talented. The only reason I haven’t read anything by her before now is lack of time. She was a name on my radar that I’ve wanted to try so I’m glad I finally did. Part of what makes the story compelling is that having been written by an author who is from Malaysia and is Asian adds an undeniable authenticity to the character. There are rich details and perspectives that wouldn’t be captured by someone not from Malaysia, someone not as familiar with the environment and the culture. The character of Jessamyn Teoh is a beautiful character full of contradictions that the author highlights and explores. Jess, in dealing with her dead grandmother, must come to terms with her contradictions, her secrets that she keeps from her parents, and the secrets her family has kept from her. The mysteries and intrigue of her family drama make the story so absorbing it is difficult to put down. 

The plot weaves together the culture of Malaysia, the beliefs, the religion. I love different cultures, studying other religions, and I loved the way all of those aspects were brought together into the story. It is integral, just as those elements are in the culture itself. The belief in the ancestor, in spirits, to the best of my understanding, is part of the story because it is part of the culture. But tackling the idea of a dead grandmother who takes over your body, who was a medium, is incredibly riveting. I also loved the way the novel highlighted the character’s feeling of being a fish out of water. Because she wasn’t raised in Malaysia, we as readers are introduced to the area as the character explains it. Not only does it give a way to connect readers to the location, it also allows us to connect to the character. We feel Jess’ struggle in a more realistic way. The plot also ties the modern world with the ancient traditions seamlessly. 

If you love stories featuring ghosts, different cultures and religions, the paranormal, and family drama and secrets, you will want to read this novel. Zen Cho is fantastically talented, her novel is beautifully rich, engaging, and her main character, Jess, is unforgettable. I loved the growth in the character and the story has the perfect ending. The theme of being an outsider, even in your own family, are wonderfully explored and the paranormal aspects are so good I had a difficult time putting down the book. 

5 out of 5 spirits

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