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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho #BookReview

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

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.

Title: Black Water Sister | Author: Zen Cho | Publisher:Ace Books | Pub. Date: 11 May 2021 | Pages: 384 | ISBN: 9780425283431 | Genre: Urban Fantasy | Language: English |
Source: Netgalley | Starred Review

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Black Water Sister Review

I like the occasional weird genre mash-up, so when I saw Black Water Sister, with its gorgeous cover (because yes, I’m the literary equivalent of a magpie and really that’s all it takes) and promises of gods and mobsters, obviously I was on board. I really didn’t know what to expect past those two elements, so imagine my pleasant surprise when, in addition to gods and mobsters, I also got a complex family drama with a healthy dose of urban fantasy in a really wonderful setting!

Black Water Sister follows Jessamyn, a recent Harvand grad with few prospects. As she prepares to uproot her life to relocate to her birthplace of Malaysia with her parents, she begins hearing a voice in her head. She originally chalks it up to stress, until the voice claims to be her dead grandmother. That’s when things really take a turn for Jess, because it just so happens that her family has a history of acting as mediums for various minor gods and goddesses, and Jess may be next in line.

I absolutely LOVED the setting of this book. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in any genre set in Malaysia, and the urban fantasy elements of this book made for a really fun way to “explore” the city of Penang. The author does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into the city and its culture. I also loved that there’s no handholding here. Black Water Sister is unapologetically Malaysian; there are no italics when Hokkien or Malay words are used, no anglicized names (apart from Jess herself), no long, drawn-out explanations of basic cultural elements like the Chinese New Year celebrations or the use of honorifics when referring to family members. The author drops the reader in and says “figure it out.” This might not work for every reader, but for me, this was perfect – it forced me to look things up in far more detail than I would have gotten from a cursory explanation in the context of the novel, and it added to the immersion I felt as I read.

The plot itself is wonderful. It’s twisty and unexpected, with lots of fantastic mythology and some dark humour that often caught me off-guard and made me chuckle out loud. I won’t say too much about the specifics, but the blend of genres and the relationships that move the plot forward are all very well executed and I was never bored. Really the only relationship I found lacking was that between Jess and her girlfriend. Things are already rocky between them before the book really gets off the ground, and Jess is nearly immediately lying and keeping secrets, so I found it hard to really root for their relationship.

In terms of the other characters, Ah Ma definitely stole the show. She’s the best kind of snarky, and while she’s not exactly pure of intention, she generally tries to protect Jess. I enjoyed watching their relationship unfold over the course of the novel. Jess herself is an interesting character, though a bit meek at times, especially when interacting with her parents. Her personality does really evolve as the book goes on though, so I was able to get past those moments where she seemed a bit bland and lacking in backbone.

Black Water Sister is a novel with a LOT going on, but it manages to make all of its elements work together to form an urban fantasy unlike anything I’ve read before. Definitely a novel I would recommend to anyone who enjoys unconventional fantasy.

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

Published inFantasy Book ReviewsStarred Reviews

One Comment

  1. Ok, this sounds very interesting! Thank you for the review. Always looking for new fantasy novels to read 🙂

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