Black Water Sister (Kindle Edition)
by Zen Cho
4.5 stars, actually.
Several fairly cool things in this book in terms of low-occurrence Urban Fantasy tropes in USA literature: a Malay protagonist, a Penang location, a gay protagonist, lack of romance as a major subplot or theme, explicit reference to ingrained sexism in god/myths/folklore, and a majority of dialogue transcribed in
In this stand-alone feeling story, Jess has just moved to Penang with her parents to live with an Aunt and Uncle after her father’s serious illness results in financial difficulties.
Her grandmother, Ah Ma, is waiting for her there with a bunch of unfinished family business and secrets, as a ghost.
Also waiting: a god with a tragic past connected to her family involved in a dispute over a shrine with a big-time rich Penang developer with mobster ties. Jess has to lie to her parents and extended family about her faraway girlfriend, the presence of Ah Ma, and her lack of career goals. She also must navigate the multicultural and multi-lingual world of Penang, and the book does the reader the courtesy of using Malay exclamations and food names without glossing it overly much. I didn’t find it distracting or incomprehensible.
What I did find distracting, was the overwhelming use of non-British/non-American English grammar structures and phrases. For the first third of the book, I appreciated the “flavor” of those phrases, but after a while, they began to feel awkward and clunky, and for me, made the story more ambiguous and fuzzy, as I often had to go back and reread to figure out what the characters were saying.
On the one hand, it felt authentic. On the other hand, after a while I cared more about the secrets Jess was feeling and just wanted to experience that with her rather than have to “translate’ what was being said. After a while, the characters really blurred together for me, partially as a result of their dialogue being similarly fuzzy.
You have to dial up your ambiguity tolerance for this one. But it’s worth it. I particularly appreciated the novelty of an urban fantasy where romance is not the main dealio, and also, how unearthing the Black Water Sister’s death story contrasted with the stories of the male gods and the way Jess did not shy away from those complicated stories.