Is Our Writers Learning? Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho (with spoilers)

Continuing to study urban fantasy in response to that feedback … I enjoyed Zen Cho’s BLACK WATER SISTER (cover by Tiffany Estreicher) but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it (and didn’t like it as much as Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen). Part of that is that it’s a New Adult book: Chinese-American protagonist Jessamyn is an Ivy League graduate whose career dreams have crashed and burned (I never quite got why) so she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s also a lesbian with a girlfriend bit hasn’t come out to her folks yet. Now she’s heading back home with them to Penang in Malaysia where her father, recently recovered from cancer, is getting a job with his Chinese-Malaysian family.

Much like coming-of-age novels, the mid-twenties crisis is a turnoff for me. Things pick up as it turns out Jess is haunted by Ah Ma, the ghost of her maternal grandmother whom she never met. Ah Ma was a medium and servant of a local deity, Black Water Sister. A local big-shot developer with mob ties is planning to pave over the temple where the goddess’s altar sits; Ah Ma wants Jess to help derail this.

This, of course, proves much harder and more dangerous than it looks. The developer has no qualms about having obstacles like Jess rubbed out. Ah Ma is a nasty piece of work, a criminal in life herself, with no qualms about using her granddaughter. Jess has medium abilities herself and Black Water Sister wants Jess as her new high priestess (not how they phrase it in Malaysia, but that’s the concept).  And Jess’s girlfriend is convinced by Jess’s sudden lack of communication and reluctance to leave her parents that it’s all over.

The Malaysian elements are absolutely fascinating, particularly the rhythm of people’s speech. I really like Jess’s parents as characters: a lot of first-generation Americans get stock types for parents (traditionalist mother, affable father) but this couple feel like individuals, not generic. The developer’s son is a good character too, a seemingly nice guy but not strong enough to be genuinely nice when Daddy needs him.

On the negative side, Jess’s girlfriend is virtually a cipher, much less fleshed out than the parents. Jess herself is too passive, either threatened by the bad guys or used as a tool of Ah Ma and Black Water Sister. There’s one point where she forces a meeting with the developer that she shows some drive to control her own fate, otherwise she just keeps telling Ah Ma “no” while slowly wearing down. Black Water Sister’s fate — free her from the trauma she carried over from when she was a mortal — is a stock ghost-story trope and it left me unsatisfied. So did the ending in which Jess finally decides to out herself to her parents, but we don’t see their reaction. I get the point — the book starts with Jess completely adrift and ends with her finding direction — but I really hoped her parents would be able to deal and I’m disappointed not to know.

What I learned: This novel doesn’t start with much at stake, but it makes up for it by Jess’s emotional state. She’s frustrated, full of doubt, thrown into a culture she doesn’t know (her parents left Malaysia when she was very small) and generally miserable. Which is certainly true of Maria in Southern Discomfort (she’s also pushed around but tries harder than Jess to get away), but she doesn’t come in until Chapter Two. I’ve considered making that the start, but I’m not sure the novel would work without the backstory and the relationships established in Chapter One. I’ll think about it again, though.

Then there’s Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The opening has some life-and-death stuff going on, but then it slows down quite a bit, as some of my writing group have pointed out when I read parts of it. As it isn’t finished yet, this may be easier to fix than to rewrite Southern Discomfort.

So a useful read, and, overall, a good one despite the bits I didn’t like.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Southern Discomfort, Writing

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