Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: 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.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

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