Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Rating: 4 out of 5.
This is the cover image for the book Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.

Black Water Sister is a Contemporary Fantasy featuring a modern-day twist on traditional Chinese folklore. Through the main character, author Zen Cho looks into how actions and self-perception are closely bound to our culture and family bonds— plus, there are ghosts. The novel is set against a tropical Malaysian backdrop of filial piety and socioeconomic disparity and follows our main character, Jess, as she struggles to find her footing in a country that’s simultaneously hers yet oh-so-foreign.

Jess’ character undergoes a lot of transformation throughout this fast-paced, folklore-imbued fantasy novel. Her growth is in no small part due to Ah Ma, and the story kicks off when the ghost of Ah Ma, her recently departed grandmother, shows up and decides to live rent-free in her head. Literally. (Yes, our main character does indeed become fully possessed by her maternal grandmother’s spirit.)

Not everyone can commune with spirits, but being Ah Ma’s granddaughter, Jess can. Ah Ma is on a mission, and she’s decided that there’s only one person who can help her— and that’s her granddaughter, who’s going to be her medium whether she likes it or not. Though resistant at first, Jess finds herself drawn into the world of spirits, ghosts, and gods. Cue: long-buried family secrets, vengeful deities, crooked businessmen, and troublesome gangsters.

Beyond the fantastical and supernatural, our heroine also has other things on her plate: her increasingly fraught relationship with her long-distance girlfriend, a halfhearted (nearly nonexistent) job search, and continuous worry about her parents’ well-being. The latter is particularly significant because— well, remember the girlfriend? Yeah, Jess isn’t exactly out of the closet yet. Though she’s managed to wave away comments and suggestions from family members about her unknown (to them) relationship status, she knows she won’t be able to hide her sexual orientation for long— not if she really, truly wants to live a life of her own. And therein lies the rub. 

The Teoh family’s move from America to Malaysia followed her father’s recovery from cancer and the mountain of debt that came with it. After watching her parents build a comfortable life in America only to lose it all, she grapples with balancing her dreams with her sense of duty and loyalty. Despite her family urging her to live her life for herself, through much of the novel, she struggles with defining her independence.

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Black Water sister offers a richly entertaining paranormal read, with an exceedingly relatable heroine. Jess’ authentic characterization illustrated a believably conflicted experience of a young Asian-American woman struggling to reconcile her desire to please her parents with her uncertainty about whether they’ll accept her identity as a member of the LGBTQ community.

Elements of fantasy, horror, and even dark comedy intertwined to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale, and I enjoyed Cho’s take on local Chinese and Malaysian folklore. Her deft incorporation of these elements served not only as a plot device but also as nods to their cultural significance against the backdrop of modern Malaysia. The dialogue was engaging, and Cho’s inclusion of Malaysian/Hokkien vernacular lent to an immersive reading experience.

I highly recommend Black Water Sister to those who enjoy Fantasy and Mythological/Folklore retellings, especially if East Asian folklore is your thing.

Content warning: scenes depicting violence, attempted kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for the early access to the digital ARC of this novel.

Where to find Black Water Sister

Publication Date: May 11, 2021 (Berkley Publishing Group)

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