An above average first book, with lots to like for urban fantasy fans. It reminds me of Maxine Hong Kingston crossed with Snake Agent.
A young widowed woman, Xian Li-lin, with ‘ghost eyes,’ is living in 1898 in San Francisco with her emotionally distant father. They are priest and priestess in the Maoshan tradition: “we are ghost hunters, spirit mediums, and exorcists. When creatures out of nightmare trouble Chinatown, people come to the Maoshan for protection. With paper talismans we drive away the spirits, with magic gourds we imprison them, with peachwood swords we destroy them. People fear those who live at the border of the spirit world. They say a haunt of death taints us.” One day, the best friend of her husband comes with an unknown man to the Hall of Ancestors, asking for a favor for a drowned friend trapped in the spirit world. A twitch of independence and sympathy lead her into acting on her own, which leads to trouble.
From there the plot thickens. First Lin-lin has to cope with the spirit world, and then discover who wants to harm her father and why, which leads to further complications. I thought it satisfactory, if perhaps excessively convoluted for a villain, and enjoyed the twist that these particular protagonists bring to what seems to be a standard power play. However, the climactic conflict is ridiculously protracted, one of those Hollywood superhero fights where I’m thinking, ‘die, already, please, so we can move to the next thing.’ Had I been the editor, I would have drastically trimmed it and replaced the word count with more detail in a couple of intriguing waypoints that could have used more attention.
For all that, it was an fast, absorbing read that I didn’t want to put down. There’s a wide variety of characters and events that continuously piqued my interest. A Night Parade; conflict between the Chinese tongs; questions of assimilation; a scary monk; Mao’er, a questionable cat-spirit; the spirit of an eyeball, Mr. Yanqui; and overall, just a more unusual take on the fantasy/mythic fiction genre. Yet despite the characters and action, I felt like Lin-lin has to do some growing through the story, and does come to several spots where she pushes herself as well as opens herself up to new possibilities. I appreciated the growth within the confines of the time period and culture.
Boroson has an extensive resources at the end that include insights on how they approached the material such as language, measurements, religion, etiquette, and so forth. There’s a short list of ‘Book Club Questions’ for those who want to bring a more discursive approach to their reading, as well as both recommended reading and movie lists. It’s apparent they came to this story with both personal and academic interest in Chinese culture, and I found the tone to be well done, if a touch on the kung-fu theater admiration side of the equation.
Note for Goodreaders: the blurb is poorly done. Don’t let it sway you one way or another.