Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Having loved Cho’s Sorcerer Royal books I was so hyped to read this…and now that I have, I am high-key disappointed. Whereas Sorcerer Royal is a fantasy of manners (a la Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Black Water Sister is an urban fantasy with a contemporary setting. The premise and cover for this novel definitely piqued my interest but sadly found its execution to be lacking. The central character of Black Water Sister is twenty-something Jess, born in Malaysia and raised in the States, who is going through ‘I don’t know what I am doing with my life’ crisis. When her parents are forced to relocate to Penang, Jess follows suit. Her long-distance girlfriend is growing frustrated by Jess’ indecisiveness about her future but Jess herself does not feel comfortable coming out to her parents let alone telling them that she has GF. Then, Jess begins to hear a voice. At first, she tells herself that it is the stress of the move but soon realizes that the voice belongs to her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who recently passed away. Keeping Ah Ma a secret proves hard, especially when Ah Ma drags her into a feud between a ‘terrifying’ deity, Black Water Sister, and a crooked businessman, who happens to be one of the wealthiest men in Malaysia. The story follows Jess as she tries to survive fights with gangs and supernatural beings.

Jess is annoying in spite of being largely nondescript. She has a vague half-formed personality (think generic America millennial) and she often does not act of her own volition (others make her do things or put her in situations where she is then forced to act).
Ah Ma was entertaining at first, she definitely has some of the best lines but she does something before the halfway mark that I found problematic, especially how the story seemingly glossed over her actions.
Jess’ parents should have played a bigger role in the story. Jess’ mom does get some page time but it did not really do her character any justice.
The story wasted time on characters we know are not all that (Jess’ uncle and the son of the crooked businessman).
Jess’ GF did not really have a personality. Her calls with Jess were few and did little in terms of her chararisation. I had no real grasp on her, she remains a disembodied voice at the other end of the line. Having flashback showing their first meeting, how they fell in love, and their decision to be in a LDR would have made me care more for them.

Unlike Sorcerer Royal, which boasts a prose that is both elaborate and playful, the writing style here came across as relatively basic. The humor stemmed not to much from the narrative but from the occasional one-liners spoken by characters (most of them by Ah Ma or Jess’ mom). The writing failed to engage me and because of this, I found myself skipping quite a few paragraphs towards the end.

The novel’s setting is easily its biggest strength. Cho vibrantly renders Malaysia, from its climate to its culture and languages.

The ghosts were intriguing at first but once we learn more about the temple and see the Black Water Sister the fantasy elements no longer grabbed me. The whole thing felt very anticlimactic.

All in all, Black Water Sister was not what I was hoping it’d be. Still, I am sure that many other readers will find this to be a positively captivating read. I just happen not to be one of them. Cho remains a favourite of mine and I eagerly await her next release.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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