Book Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister by Zen ChoTitle: Black Water Sister
Author: Zen Cho
Publisher: Ace – Berkley Publishing Group
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Genre: Fantasy
One Sentence Summary: When Jess and her family move back to Malaysia, Jess finds herself haunted by her estranged late grandmother on behalf of a god so both woman and god can take revenge on the businessman encroaching on the god’s temple.

I don’t actually know much about Malaysia, but have been trying to read more Asian-inspired fantasy, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review Black Water Sister. It turned out to be quite a surprise since the main character, Jess, and her family are Chinese Malaysian. There’s a bit of a language barrier both for Jess and the reader as Malaysian words and an Asian manner of speech are used delightfully unapologetically, but it quickly grew on me and I discovered that reading the dialogue quickly actually made it make more sense in my head. But this was actually a really fascinating read with ghosts, gods, gangs, powerful businessmen, dead women seeking revenge, and the obligatory overly involved Asian elders.

After her father’s cancer goes into remission, Jess and her parents pack up and leave the States for Malaysia. Recently graduated from college and now separated by space from her girlfriend, Jess flounders when they arrive at her aunt’s house, where they will be staying. Caught between family expectations and her girlfriend pushing for her to come out, Jess unexpectedly begins to hear her dead grandmother’s voice.

Ah Ma has a score to settle, and has selected Jess as the one to house her spirit so she can finish her unfinished business. But, as Ah Ma slowly brings Jess into the world she inhabited while alive, full of ghosts and gods and a bloodthirsty goddess, Jess becomes caught up in it, stuck in the battle between the goddess, Ah Ma, and a wealthy businessman with surprising ties and a great deal of money and influence.

Life becomes dangerous for Jess, and she has to keep it all from her family because her mother and Ah Ma have been estranged for years. Becoming a medium is not what she wanted, but it might be the only way to lay vindictive spirits to rest.

For anyone looking for a strong Asian-inspired fantasy, Black Water Sister needs to be a contender. This book takes the reader and drops them straight into Malaysia, straight into a Chinese family living in Malaysia. It’s there in every word, in the jumbled English they speak, in their beliefs, in the major and minor Asian gods sprinkled in throughout the story. There are so many different elements, but they worked really well together to form a really tight plot where nothing was extraneous.

I liked that there were a lot of clashes in this book. There are cultural clashes as Jess was brought up in America and has lost some of her Asian culture. Now she’s madly trying to take up the language while also trying not to offend family and other characters. As a reader being dropped into Malaysia, Jess really is the reader’s portal into the world, though it was still a little confusing at times. Then there’s the religious clash. This one was fun since Jess’s mother still has some dealings with the gods and Jess’s aunt, the one Jess’s family is currently living with, is well and truly Christian. The different ways they dealt with Jess’s “possession” was equal bits fun and serious. Finally, there’s something of a sexuality clash with Jess being lesbian, but her family still expecting her to marry a man. It doesn’t actually create as much tension as the other two, but it’s there as an undertone, as another secret Jess is keeping, one she has to struggle with the whole book. I really liked how all of it felt grounded in real life and came to life in the spaces between character interactions.

There’s a lot of really good things in Black Water Sister, so I was kind of disappointed the romance subplot wasn’t stronger. It’s actually quite straightforward, but just seemed to be almost non-existent at the same time. Mostly, it was wrapped up in Jess struggling with coming clean to her parents, so much so that I questioned the inclusion of Jess’s girlfriend since she didn’t really play a plot changing role. But, at the same time, I’m kind of glad it was there. It gave Jess herself something to mull over, something that she alone had to deal with, something that could ground her to herself considering both Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister want to use her body.

But what I liked most was that Black Water Sister focuses on family. No matter how you look at it, it revolves around Jess’s nutty family. Everyone plays some kind of role, whether it’s to push the story forward or to highlight the world. It’s all about those tight family bonds whether or not they’re wanted.

Black Water Sister revolves around Jess’s family, her mother’s family and her father’s family. There are also some other characters who are indirectly related, but it’s mostly about Jess’s family. They came off as very Chinese Malaysian, an interesting mix of Chinese and Malaysian cultures that grounded each character, that gave them their direction and sense of self. At the same time, perhaps because I felt the focus was on using the culture to paint each character, most of the characters felt really one note. There wasn’t much complexity to them, no real history. Jess, Ah Ma, and the Black Water Sister, though, were a fantastic trio. With two of them being dead, it was so much fun getting to know them and their histories while Jess was stuck dealing with them.

I really liked Jess. She’s a blend of Chinese, Malaysian, and American and there were some threads of her struggles with figuring out how it all slotted into her life. She’s continually pulled by her Asian culture, by what’s expected of her from her family, but her heart really wants other things. She’s gutsy, yet cautious and a little reckless because a god wants to use her as her medium. But I really loved how she truly cared about her family, how they were always a matter of concern to her. At the same time, she really starts to come into her own during the book, learning that she really is deeply loved and to find safety in it to pursue the scary.

Black Water Sister presents a really interesting world. It’s ours, but there’s an overlay of the supernatural. Malaysia is modern and dripping with heat with new, hot businesses popping up and sweat stains appearing as soon as you step out the door. But there are still temples to the old gods. I really liked that it felt distinctly Asian. Most of the world was explored through the culture. It felt like a deep dive into it, and it took me some time to figure it out. On the one hand, I liked being dropped into it. On the other, I wanted a translation guide or something. But I did really love the strong Asian elements. It felt both familiar and foreign to me, as though I could use knowledge of my own background to navigate this world.

What I really enjoyed, though, were the supernatural elements. The gods were fascinating. Many of them had been people who had been lifted to godhood after death. It was fascinating and a lot of fun, though I was confused over the distinction between god and ghost since both were fully capable of using a human body.

Black Water Sister was a surprisingly fun and delightful read. There’s definitely a serious streak running through it, but I was always caught off guard by just how much fun I found it to be. It’s both lighthearted and serious, dealing with heavy topics, but the interactions Jess has with everyone is casual and, well, fun. I adored her relationship with Ah Ma, but did want more of her romantic relationship. Overall, though, I loved the supernatural elements, the strong Asian setting and culture, and found the characters to be a lot of fun.

How many cups of tea will you need?

4 cups

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Thank you to NetGalley and Ace for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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