Microreview [Book]: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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A skillfully crafted fantasy story that’s as ethereal as its spirits.

Our bodies can often seem possessed. To most people, that possession occurs in a metaphorical sense. Dogma possesses us, as it’s hammered down from society until it sticks, nailed down to our core whether we like it or not. And that dogma can deviate from what we want deep down, like how family values dictate who we can and can’t love. Black Water Sister explores that possession, and with clever skill, it combines it with literal possession. A family spirit inhabits the protagonist, while they’re dealing with family interference from all sides. It’s a compelling story that’s quality is heightened by witty dialogue, a pacey second half, and vibrant characters.

Jess is a college grad, moving from America to Malaysia—where she once lived until toddlerhood. But a new location isn’t even one of the top five things nagging her. She has a girlfriend that she’s frightened to disclose to her parents, fearing homophobia. And most prominent is that the spirit of her maternal grandmother – Ah Ma – has inhabited her mind. Ah Ma wants something from Jess, which sparks a journey full of betrayals, gods, gangsters, and a slew of other obstacles.

We’re introduced to Jess at an active time of her life, where she’s juggling closeted sexuality, family spirits, and a change of location. But despite the interweaving of several high-stake plot threads, the story takes its time getting going. There’s always some momentum – the story never wades – but there were times in its early goings when I wanted to speed through the proceedings a little quicker. Just before the halfway mark, however, the story comes together, as all the aforementioned threads are fully realized, bouncing off each other in frenetic but readable thrills.

A great asset that encompasses every section of Black Water Sister is its impeccable dialogue and voice. Zen Cho fires off clever one-liners with such rapid fire and skillful consistency that it seems easy. The characters come alive from it, too. Even side characters who have minimal roles have brief, concise lines that exude a distinct personality with verve, getting at least a couple memorable scenes. To top it off, the prose never meanders into over-description or lack of focus. Every sentence is fluid and calculated, giving me the feeling that I was riding on a train track that every rail had been polished, checked, and rechecked, so I would arrive exactly at my destination exactly as intended.

As fun as the one-liners are, that’s not the storytelling’s only great quality. There are moments of engaging drama that become more apparent as the story progresses. Those moments interlace the verve with tension of the romantic, familial, or spiritual variety, making the moments of pep full of relief. And those relieving instances are peppered through the story to not overload it with frivolity or vice versa. Heartbreak from one relationship is counterbalanced with affection in another. Internal conflict is counterbalanced with external rewards.

Those rewards take a little patience as the novel sets up its world–but those rewards are more than worthy of a slow but still fascinating start. Black Water Sister taught me that possessions aren’t just from family dogma and literal supernatural possessions. Literature has a possessive quality, too. Like the most interesting books, Black Water Sister inserted itself firmly in my mind, as I experienced visceral reactions for the characters and genuine shock for its many twists. It’s an ultimately propulsive story that didn’t leave me with internal angst or spiritual agitation. Instead, it took up gratifying space in my brain, and thanks to the characters and a story that I couldn’t get enough of, I hope it never leaves.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 For consistently terrific dialogue.

+1 For an un-put-downable second half.

Negatives: -1 For a slightly slow start.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Cho, Zen. Black Water Sister [Ace Books, 2021].

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie – Screenwriter, editor, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, “Neat!”

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