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Black Water Sister

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A finalist for the 2022 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
One of BookPage's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2021
One of Tor.com Reviewers' Choice Best Books of 2021
One of Book Riot's Best SFF Standalones of 2021

“Ghosts. Gods. Gangsters. Black Water Sister has it all…a wildly entertaining coming-of-age story for the twentysomething set, with a protagonist who is almost painfully relatable at times.” —Vulture

"A twisty, feminist, and enthralling page-turner ."—BuzzFeed

"A sharp and bittersweet story of past and future, ghosts and gods and family ."—N aomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

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

  When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies.  As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

384 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 11, 2021

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About the author

Zen Cho

54 books2,360 followers
I'm a Malaysian fantasy writer based in the UK. Find out more about my work here: http://zencho.org

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,615 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
May 18, 2021
"A stressed lesbian medium fights gods, ghosts, gangsters, and grandmas in 21st century Penang" The alliteration alone successfully sold me on this book lol
Profile Image for megs_bookrack.
1,537 reviews9,793 followers
April 10, 2023
**3.5-stars rounded up**

After graduating from Harvard, Jessamyn Teoh, finds herself broke, unemployed and still unable to come out to her parents.

After her father's health starts to deteriorate, her parents decide to move back to Malaysia and Jess is going with them.

Having grown up in the United States, the move will require some adjustment, but as Jess sees it, she doesn't have much of a choice.

Now she needs to add the stress of a long-distance relationship with her secret girlfriend into the mix.

It's a lot of pressure, so when Jess begins to hear voices, she thinks she may actually be losing it.

As it turns out, she's not really hearing voices, plural. She's hearing just one voice, that of her deceased Grandmother, Ah Ma.

When she was alive, Ah Ma was a spirit medium for a mysterious, local deity known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma's spirit is restless, unable to cross over, until she seeks revenge against a powerful man who offended the God.

Ah Ma plans to use Jess for this mission.

Black Water Sister was like no other Contemporary Fantasy novel that I have ever read. It was modern, magical, fast-paced and full of over-the-top family drama!

I really enjoyed watching the evolution Jess made as a character. She was smart, intuitive and adaptable from the very beginning, but it also felt like she was holding back.

Once she meets Ah Ma, even though the two clashed in a lot of ways, that pressure made Jess grow and find a strength within herself that she didn't realize was there.

The Malaysian setting and cultural background were so refreshing. That backdrop is an important part of the story and I truly became immersed within it.

Overall, I was impressed with the complexity, nuance and fantastical elements included within this story. While this is my first Zen Cho novel, it certainly will not be my last!

Thank you so much to the publisher, Berkley Publishing, for providing me with a copy to read and review.

I truly appreciate the opportunity!

Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,198 reviews40.7k followers
May 11, 2021
What a delicious, intriguing combination tempts the quirky mind of mine : zillennial queer heroine discovers her powers to connect with spirits and she also realizes the ties that bind can unleash the lethal power in this surprising, complex, Malaysian-set urban fantasy!

Let’s meet with our heroine Jessamyn Teoh ( we’d better calm her Jess) just graduated from Harvard, has no idea what she’ll do with her degree, feeling confused without job prospects. In the meantime she finds out, they’re in debt because of her recently deceased father’s cancer treatment fees which forces them to move from the US to Malaysia where they immigrated from to unite with extended family.

You can guess Jess is not happy with this sudden changes in her life. She has a girlfriend she keeps secret from her family and now she needs to learn building long distance relationship.

This is the least she needs to worry about: she has bigger problems like hearing voices in her head. When she’s in the closet, she keeps hearing Ah Ma’s voice clearly. Actually she’s not only hearing her estranged grandmother, she can also connect with her avatar of mysterious deity ( a kind of goddess) Black Water Sister.

Poor Jess becomes slave of her godmother whose plan is setting to score against the business magnate who did something offensive against the god and needs her granddaughter’s help. She can be persuasive by using her body without asking her permission and committing felonies. She can also play dirty by blackmailing Jess to spill her secrets including her love life to her extended family!

So Jess would better negotiate with capricious spirits and help her delirious grandma for her grand scheme unless she find a way to control her body and set free herself from the claws of her!

This was entertaining, smart, original urban fantasy deals with sensitive issues realistically including homophobia, racism, abuse, rape.

Malaysian set - a reluctant young medium deals with spirits, vindictive ghosts, helping to restrain a dangerous power can destruct their world was brilliant. Well developed world building , enjoyable characterization earned my four sci-fi, twisty, addictive, mind blowing, far eastern stars!

Special thanks to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group/ Ace for sharing this digital reviewer copy with me in exchange my honest thoughts.
Profile Image for P. Clark.
Author 45 books4,282 followers
August 27, 2021
One of my favorite reads of the summer. I’ve read Zen Cho’s other full length novels of fantasy and history. This one is a different take, with a contemporary setting—but there’s still lots of magic. Really enjoyed the protagonist: brooding, uncertain, and prone to acts of self sabotage. Yet, she’s also fiercely determined, resourceful, full of biting wit, and manages to rise to the occasion, even up against the most dire of challenges. There’s also a lot of family wrapped up in this story (good, bad, ugly and weird) that is beautifully relatable. All of this, interwoven with gangsters, hungry spirits, and frighteningly angry gods. Definitely recommend this one.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,114 followers
June 21, 2021
Absolutely superb fantasy set in modern Malaysia, as a Malaysian American lesbian finds herself haunted by her grandmother and then meddling in the affairs of gods, which is always a bad idea.

Glorious dialogue, great characters depicted with deep affection as well as clearsightedness, magnificently vivid setting, and a twisty, unpredictable plot, plus a thrumming current of rage: at how men treat women, at racism, at how immigrants are abused, societal homophobia, capitalism, greed--there's a lot to be angry about here and we are, and that engine of rage is at the core of the plot because it's what drives the god too.

Really excellent. Do not miss.
Profile Image for Lex Kent.
1,682 reviews8,705 followers
May 10, 2021
I enjoyed this one. I have not been having the best reading lucky lately so it was really nice to read a solid, good story. Cho is completely new to me, but I have wanted to read her for a while. I found her writing style quite engaging and I will absolutely be reading more of her.

I have not read many books that take place in Malaysia but I just loved the setting. Cho makes you feel so immersed in the sights, people, and culture, that it really made me feel like I was there. I’m also a huge urban fantasy fan so I loved the mix of the two. In a place filled with gods and ghosts –that “normal” humans can’t see- our main character, Jess, realizes there is more going on in the word when her grandmother starts speaking to her, her grandmother who died a year ago.

While the pace is a little slow at times, there is a ton of stuff that happens in this book and many pages fly by at warp speed. While I liked that there was so much going on, I think it was a little too much. I’m not going to sit here and list the bigger storylines –because of spoilers-, but trust me it’s a lot. I think Cho was trying to squeeze too much in so that certain things didn’t get the attention they needed to make a bigger impact.

One storyline that didn’t quite work was around Jess’ relationship. Jess is having trouble coming out to her folks and she often lets down a very patient girlfriend. The problem is not the storyline, but that it never really went anywhere. The girlfriend character does not have a lot of depth, and they don’t seem to have a great connection, so it’s hard to root for them. Plus there are a few other things that remain unresolved, under this storyline, so it made me wonder why have Jess spend so much time agonizing over it? I think the storyline needed more time to develop, or maybe spend this time on something else instead.

While I didn’t think the girlfriend character was developed enough, I thought Grandma and Mom stole the show. These characters were so well written and even had a few funny lines which helped since this book had some darker moments. I have to give a trigger warning for violence and attempted rape. The book as a whole doesn’t feel too dark, but there are some tough moments and quite a few physical fights.

There is a little bit of a ghost and family mystery that I found to be quite compelling. There are two twists in this book that I did not see coming and I love when an author surprises me. The last third of the book especially just hooks you right in and you can’t stop reading.

In the end I enjoyed this. It’s not perfect, there are a few bumps, but I needed a good book like this. Hopefully this is the start of some good book luck and I hope I get to read more of Cho soon. I would recommend this to urban fantasy fans, especially if you are looking for an interesting new setting that isn’t just America or the UK.

An ARC was given to me for a review.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
425 reviews182 followers
October 10, 2021
Zen Cho so effectively evokes the horribleness of older Chinese relatives that reading Black Water Sister made me feel something akin to PTSD. I don't want to minimize the suffering involved in actual PTSD, but there's something that sticks with you about:

- being told, as a self-conscious 13 year old weighing 80 pounds, that you are getting fat
- being proselytized to with all the enthusiasm of MLM schemers by the evangelical Christian faction of the family
- constantly being compared to your cousins (GPAs, height, accomplishments, filial piety, etc.)
- getting stuck at a restaurant with adults passive-aggressively hashing out their grievances in the guise of fighting over the check
- dealing with the hassles of having an official Chinese first name but being registered at school under an English name
- being mocked for the inadequacies of your Chinese, a language in which you don't even know any swear words

Man. I did not need that trip down memory lane. I haven't seen these relatives for twenty years and will probably see them only once more in my life, at my dad's funeral. There are reasons I majored in British literature and ecology, and reasons why my dad brags about my sister (the doctor), and not me (the blue-collar-adjacent field biologist). I'm not sure he ever told his family I eloped with a white guy (without a PhD, even) over a decade ago.

All this personal baggage made it hard to enjoy Black Water Sister, even while appreciating the skill and knowledge that went into recreating its rich cultural backdrop. Malaysian Chinese culture and the Hokkien language are different from what I grew up with, but the cadence of the speech and many small details felt entirely too familiar. The story, too, is a coming-of-age specific to the Chinese diaspora: protagonist Jessamyn Teoh is a first generation American and closeted lesbian who unexpectedly ends up moving back to Malaysia with her parents for lack of better options.

Things are not appreciably easier once there: her parents are emotionally fragile, her long distance relationship isn't going well, she's surrounded by nosy and overbearing relatives all the time - and she's being haunted by her dead but still cantankerous grandmother Ah Ma who has unfinished business involving vengeance, gods, and local business tycoons.

The exchanges between Jess and Ah Ma are often entertaining, and Ah Ma is by far the most compelling character in the book.
The ghost said, How come you know about the temple?

I Googled Ng Chee Hin's company, said Jess. She remembered the ghost - Ah Ma - was an old person. I mean, I looked it up online. There's this thing called the internet, you can type in any word and find out about it -

I know what is Google,
said Ah Ma. I only died last year! They wrote about what that bastard is trying to do to the temple on the internet, is it? What did they say?

Black Water Sister is more family drama than fantasy for most of its 366 pages, and though there are ghosts and gods and supernatural happenings, there's also a lot of time spent dealing with Jess's parents and [living] relatives and hanging around in Penang, Malaysia. It wasn't hard to read (beyond the frequent cringing I was doing), but it also wasn't hard to put down. I think my main problem was that, while I identified with Jess's cultural struggles, she seems curiously blank as a character - a literal conduit for spirits who doesn't quite emerge as a person in her own right. She reacts to events but doesn't have a lot of agency until the very end.

There's some very sharp feminist commentary in here that merits further consideration:
Men like Master Yap became divine after living revered lives, dying serene deaths and getting promoted by the Jade Emperor. Women like the Black Water Sister became gods because their lives were so shitty, their deaths so hideous, that people prayed to them to avert their vengeance. Because they had died with all that fury left to spend.

There's so much to unpack in this one with its themes of family obligations, power, cultural and religious clashes, and identity. Yet I have no desire to ever revisit this book or my memories of my variously crappy relatives, so 3.5 stars, rounding down.

A quick note on the Chinese names used in this book: Jess's Chinese name is Teoh Sze Min, which is typical of a Chinese name in which the first character is what English speakers would consider the last name, followed by the two character given name. If she didn't go by her English name Jessamyn, people would likely address her as Sze Min. Her mom calls her Min, her relatives add the Ah in front. Kids in my family addressed grandparents/aunts/uncles by their titles (this is WAY more complex in Chinese than English, but the Ah+given name construction seems more common in Malaysian Chinese culture. My parents sometimes call me Ah Fan (and my sister Ah Chuan), but not exclusively, and I haven't heard them address anyone else this way.
May 30, 2022
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small side note: I wrote a review for this book and ended up deleting it by mistake 🙃 so this 'new' review will be more concise.

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.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
996 reviews1,132 followers
January 19, 2022
Zen Cho's story of family secrets, ghosts and superstition was such an interesting and refreshing read! This is the kind of speculative fiction that I find truly awesome, the sort that puts you in the shoes of a character very different from you and challenges you to look at the world through their eyes.

Jess is the only daughter of a Chinese couple from Malaysia, and like many people her age, she is rather lost. She graduated from Harvard, but she is unemployed and closeted, mainly because her parents are very traditional. After her father’s cancer is finally in remission, they decide to go back to Malaysia, where Jess is even more unmoored than she was in the US, far from her girlfriend and everything she knew. People in Malaysia believe in gods and hungry ghosts and all kinds of things Jess doesn’t understand, but she’ll need to learn – and fast, as she is visited by the spirit of her recently deceased but still very angry maternal grandmother. Through this contact with the world of spirit, Jess will end up involved in resolving a very ancient grudge, as well as a few more recent ones.

I think that this device was a very interesting way for Cho to explore the idea that there is so much we don’t know, even about the people who are closest to us, and what the people in our family were like before we came along. Its always a mental leap for children to think of their parents as people, and not parents – and for parents to think of their children as people. The ghosts are sometimes metaphors for “past lives” we don’t feel connected to anymore. Children don’t always mesh with the traditions their parents were raised in, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s foolish to deny the internal tug of war that goes on in such situations, and I thought it was rendered with great sensitivity and respect in this novel.

I hesitated between a 3 and a 4 star rating for this one, but the originality of this story and the fact that I already ordered a collection of Cho’s short stories tips the scales up. A not-so-light but not-too-heavy story about family, isolation and where those two concepts overlap.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
569 reviews3,933 followers
March 19, 2023
Creo que tenía una expectativas tan altas con este libro por ser de Zen Cho que era imposible que se cumplieran.
Para empezar me sorprendió que fuera tan divertido y ligero (en mi cabeza era mucho más oscuro y serio) y me parecieron maravillosos todos los personajes (especialmente la abuela, la tía y la propia Jess), pero es verdad que creo que la parte central se alarga demasiado, se me hizo un poco pesado todo el tema mafioso.
Y en cambio la presencia de los dioses y espíritus me fascinó, así como la habilidad de la autora para hablar del desarraigo, la discriminación (de varios tipos), la cultura en Malasia y las dificultades para aceptarnos a nosotros mismos y encajar eso con nuestra familia... en fin, me gustó muchísimo todo eso pero creo que hubiera sido una historia más redonda si hubiera puesto más hincapié en la parte familiar/personal y menos en el tema criminal. O al menos a mi me hubiera gustado más.

Aún así original y super recomendable, como todo lo de Zen Cho, obvio.
Profile Image for skye.
152 reviews93 followers
June 10, 2021
this review is just going to keep getting updated from time to time because i don't know how to articulate just how much this book means to me in one single session, so i'm spreading it out as i return to it over and over again :')

a short review: When I first cracked open the book back in April, I was immediately captivated by the vivid temporality of its setting: from the daily rhythms that the characters go through, to the protagonist’s struggles that mirrored mine so closely that I nearly forgot I was reading a story that wasn’t just meant for my eyes. I mean, how often do you get to see yourself at the heart of a book? On a narrative level, the way Zen deftly handles the book’s intertwining themes of family, queerness, and diaspora while taking us on a brilliantly paced and at turns downright eerie story about a woman who has the literal ghost of her grandmother living rent-free in her head is nothing short of masterful. As a reader from Malaysia, I can’t tell you how exceedingly rare it is for me to truly see the nuances of my life represented in the fiction that I read, which is why I’m always caught so off guard by the earnestness and authenticity of Zen Cho’s Malaysian-influenced stories. And while I have deeply enjoyed what I've read of Zen's ouevre so far, I personally reckon that Black Water Sister may just be her best work yet.

pre-review: i haven't logged into goodreads for fucking forever because of my final college sem but i'm here to tell you that if this book isn't on your TBR yet, you need to add it now
Profile Image for CW ✨.
644 reviews1,693 followers
January 4, 2022
Wow, a gorgeous story that made me feel so seen as a diasporic Malaysian. Black Water Sister perfectly encapsulates the complicated intersections of being part of diaspora, being queer, and the complexities of family while also being an incredibly entertaining read about ghosts, deities, and mediums.

This book just really gets it - the whole post-university-graduation life crisis, the complicated feelings of being queer and not being out to your most-likely-to-be-ignorant family, and just also the small nuances of being part of diaspora returning to the motherland that were so subtle yet familiar to me. Oh, and also the part where Jess, the main character, becoming a medium for her dead grandmother who was intertwined with some dark deity stuff and buried secrets from the past.

The story also subtly explores the understated yet inevitable collision between generations and consequently different identities - grandmothers and mothers, mothers and daughters, old and new. Are the secrets of the past and the lives of our ancestors something for the new generation to bear? What if everything catches up and they must shoulder or right the wrongs of the past? Jess confronts this with her grandmother, her mother, and also when grappling with her queerness and her diasporic identity, and how that creates a divide between her and others in her family.

I also loved that this story had Hokkien; hearing the language that you speak exclusively to your family just hits different, you know?

In all, I loved this and I hope Zen continues writing these gorgeous, unapologetically Malaysian stories.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,150 reviews1,119 followers
December 12, 2022
Entertaining book. The family dynamics and the way rich gangsters could just do whatever they want hit too close to home LOL. Indonesians are similar as well.

Cho did research on Penang mediums and Chinese gods and it shows. I really like it when she's writing about the (Asian) supernaturals. If you haven't read her collection Spirits Abroad then you're missing a gem.
Profile Image for Janine Ballard.
492 reviews57 followers
June 5, 2021
1 star

I’m at the point now where I give every DNF one star, but this wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t one I wanted to read.

Forthwith, my review:

I enjoyed Zen Cho’s two books in her Sorcerer Royal series, with their lovable characters, whimsy, humor, and Heyer homages, so when I saw she had a fantasy novel set in modern-day Malaysia coming out, one that was initially billed as a third installment, I jumped on Black Water Sister.

I’m going to crib the plot summary from Jayne’s review:

The start of the novel is a bit confusing as there is a lot going on. Jess and her parents have moved back to Malaysia from the US after her dad lost his job, partly due to the cancer treatment he had. They’ve moved in with his younger sister and her husband, relatives have descended on them, and Jess is surrounded by uncles and aunties all talking about her and what she should do with her life. Various tensions make things more difficult as Jess wonders what she’s going to do with her life now and how she’ll keep up her romantic relationship. She’s not out to her parents and worries about how they will react when they learn of her sexual orientation.

And then she begins to hear a voice that sounds as if it’s near her or sometimes in her head. Yeah, that scares her. Turns out her dead grandmother has a revenge plan she needs Jess to help her with. Their family appears to have a talent as mediums for various gods and now that Ah Ma is dead, the god Ah Ma worked for is looking for another body to use as well as perpetually being mad as hell.

Jess is a recent Harvard graduate but she is now rudderless and hasn’t gotten a job yet, so when Ah Ma’s ghost takes over her nighttime consciousness, she is unconfident and uncertain what to do. It’s clear that Ah Ma (the grandmother Jess’s mother was estranged from and whom Jess consequently knows little about) wants revenge on the contractor/gangster who is trying to develop the land currently used as the outdoor temple where Ah Ma, her son (Jess’s uncle), and their friends have for years worshiped a dangerous goddess (the titular Black Water Sister). But what exactly that revenge plan does not become apparent for a while.

I didn’t like most of the characters involved in the main plot (some of the secondary characters, like Jess’s parents, were sympathetic enough, but I can’t say I felt invested in them). I did care about Jess but she was passive and I wanted her to have more initiative. I’m guessing she develops some later in the book but the hints at that weren’t enough to keep me reading.

A big part of the problem was my expectations—I thought this would be funnier and more like Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen in tone, so it was a rude awakening to realize that this book was darker. Much, much darker. I wasn’t prepared for it so I recoiled from some of what happened to Jess.

There was also a chaotic, out-of-control tone to the book that I didn’t care for. The Sorcerer Royal books also have a chaotic feel, but it fits the zany absurdities in that series better than it does in this context.

The things I liked best about the book were the depictions of the Malaysian setting, culture and folklore, and the immigrant experience. I could relate (so much!) to what Jess experienced as a new transplant in a foreign country. I loved reading about her paternal uncles and aunties, not so much because I loved them as people (although they weren’t bad) but because they were interesting, distinct, and conveyed things about Malaysian society and culture. I felt immersed in Jess’s large family. The sense of place was phenomenal; sweat almost dripped off my skin as I read about Malaysia’s humidity and sweltering heat.

That wasn’t enough to keep me reading, though. I quit at 48%.

Earlier in 2021:

This marks the 300th book I have on my "Want to Read" shelf. I just thought I should put that out there. I read about 50 or 60 books a year, which means I have five or six years worth of books I want to read. What do you call this disease? Aspirational book window-shopping?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ellie.
575 reviews2,119 followers
June 5, 2021
I'm not sure what exactly it was about this novel, but I loved it so so much. I very nearly rounded up to 5 stars.

Maybe it was the way Cho masterfully evoked Malaysia, from the soup-like heat to the chatty gatherings of aunties to the local deities. Or maybe it was Jess' own character arc, balancing post-university joblessness and an unsurety of where to go next with being a lesbian unsure how to come out to her parents.

That said, this novel was also very dark in places! It does have a fair deal of violence (death, physical abuse, one (?) incident of near sexual abuse), so heads up to anyone wanting to read.

full review to come!

> 4.2/4.5 stars
Profile Image for Skye Kilaen.
Author 15 books304 followers
January 10, 2022
I *really* enjoyed this contemporary fantasy about Jessamyn, a closeted young woman who's moved with her parents back to Malaysia & starts receiving visits from her dead grandmother's ghost. (Y'know, the everyday problems we all have to deal with sometimes.) To make things more complicated, turns out her grandmother was a spirit medium for a god, and the god and Grandma want revenge on a local gang boss... okay yeah, Jess has a lot to deal with while theoretically also job-hunting.

To me, one of the most striking things about the book was how well Cho paints Jess's disconnection from life as the book begins - relocating to Malaysia, the distance that introduces between her and her girlfriend, the increasing distance between Jess and any kind of plan for her future, & even between Jess and her own identity. It feels like she's standing in a hazy boundary between real and unreal (and we tread water alongside her) even before the supernatural events start to unfold. Watching her get swept into this further dimension of unreality, but then fight her way back - not just by fighting-fighting, but also with her mind and heart - was intensely satisfying.
Profile Image for Shelley Parker-Chan.
Author 7 books2,914 followers
May 29, 2021
Phenomenal. This is what it is to be queer and Asian. Zen Cho’s light touch effortlessly propels this beautifully-observed story about the ties that bind us. Magical and mundane, fierce and hopeful, Malaysian to the bone—this book is uncompromisingly itself.
Profile Image for pipsqueakreviews.
579 reviews294 followers
June 16, 2021
A world of deities and spiritual possession set in Malaysia.

When I found out about this book from Lex’s review, I felt almost obligated to buy a copy and read it, simply because this story takes place in Penang, Malaysia. I live in Singapore, an island next door, and while there are differences, there are also plenty of similarities between us in culture, language and food. So this felt right at home for me.

Black Water Sister isn’t a romance novel. It’s a Southeast Asian supernatural novel with a lesbian MC. There is no romance in it even though Jess, the MC, has a girlfriend. The side plot is more about being closeted and coming out, something Jess never even considers seriously until the end. And the few times her sexuality is remotely questioned, she lies or sidesteps it. It's sadly a realistic response for many people in the LGBT community around here who find ourselves adopting the same approach with our own families, driven by family expectations and a culture of non-confrontation. Reading this still frustrates me though because lesfic is suppose to be a form of escapism for me. And I don't like the way she communicates with her girlfriend, who deserves a lot more.

Jess is a Malaysian-Chinese who finds herself back in Malaysia with her parents for good after spending most of her life in the US. She begins hearing voices in her head, that she soon finds out belongs to the spirit of her dead grandmother. This leads her to explore a mysterious world of Taoist deities and spiritual possession, including one very powerful goddess called the Black Water Sister. This storyline is well-developed and sometimes unexpected. I'm not totally unfamiliar with Taoism. I have never heard of Black Water Sister, so I’ll assume it’s fictitious until someone tells me otherwise. But some of the other deities in the book are actual Taoist deities.

There are other things that make the book authentic. One is the colloquially-spoken dialogue. ‘Manglish’, which is almost the same as ‘Singlish’ (Singapore) is an English-based creole with Malay and Hokkien (Chinese dialect) influence. The English however, is structured differently because ‘Manglish’/’Singlish’ follow very literal Chinese-language sentence structures. Another is the complicated way Chinese people address family members. There is no generic equivalent of an uncle, aunt, cousin, etc. Every relative has a specific title and Jess uses them in Hokkien. So in this book, we have Ah Ma (grandmother), Ah Kong (grandfather), Kor Kor (father’s sister), Kor Tiao (father’s sister’s husband), Ah Ku (mother’s brother), Ah Chor (great grandmother).

Penang is a great place to visit, so rich in culture and the food is fantastic. I miss it especially now when it's impossible to travel.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,559 reviews2,312 followers
June 9, 2021
Black Water Sister
by Zen Cho

Wow! This was written so wonderfully! Jess moves back to Malaysia with her parents after she grew up in America and graduated from college. Her girlfriend, which her parents doesn't know she has, plans to move there to work later.

Things get complicated right away. She starts hearing voices. She blames it on stress. The voice tells her it's her grandmother, her mom's mother. Her mom never speaks about her mom and says little about that side of the family. This grandmother also happened to die last year.

It's a wild ride through ghosts, gods, vengeful spirits, family secrets, corporate greed, mediums, and social norms.
It's got some brutal parts, funny parts, and educational parts! Black Water Sister is the name of a god that many fear with good reason. Jess learns this along the way.
Profile Image for charlotte,.
3,127 reviews819 followers
May 12, 2021
On my blog.

Rep: Chinese Malaysian lesbian mc, Chinese Malaysian side characters, Indian American lesbian side character, Indian Chinese Malaysian side character

CWs: violence, attempted rape

Galley provided by publisher

I have loved every Zen Cho book I’ve read, so obviously I was always going to want to read Black Water Sister desperately. And I was always expecting to really enjoy it (which I did). It’s a different tack to Zen Cho’s other books, in that there was a fair bit more violence and gore than I was expecting, but still a very good read.

In Black Water Sister, Jess has returned to Malaysia with her parents, who’ve just been laid off work, and they’re living with her aunt and uncle. There, Jess finds that she’s being haunted by her grandmother, who has unfinished business which she won’t fully explain to Jess, and also the Black Water Sister, whom her grandmother was the medium for.

Zen Cho’s writing has this way of hooking you from the start. You read one chapter and then you think, maybe just one more, and before you realise it, you’re halfway through the book with no desire to put it down. That’s pretty much what was the case with me and this book. I started it at work, in a 3-hours-of-waiting-around break, and when I looked up again I’d almost finished.

Part of what makes this book so compelling is Jess. She’s a main character you’ll love from page one. The sort that you know you’ll root for from the moment they arrive. Basically, the sort of character that Zen Cho writes best. And her familial relationships were all great too (particularly with Ah Ma, because that was just truly chaotic at times and fun to read).

The book also has a plot that sucks you in. Like I said up top, it’s a little more violent than I was expecting, so I would recommend bearing that in mind when you read it (especially since there is a fairly graphic scene where the mc is about to be gang raped, plus flashbacks to femicide and domestic abuse), but it’s so compelling throughout. You want to find out what’s happening, just as Jess does. It keeps you on your toes.

All of which to say that when this book releases, you’ll want to be first in line to read it.
Profile Image for elaine.
140 reviews86 followers
May 2, 2022

hm, this is a strange one; i think i was expecting something a lot different than what i got, to some detriment of my enjoyment. i saw a lot of myself in jess, but i don't think cho establishes enough of an emotional connection for me to be wholly invested in jess's character. jess herself comes off as a blank slate, which may have been the author's intent--she is after all a conduit through which spirits project themselves and their motivations. it's effective as a framing device, but not so much as groundwork for a compelling character.

the plot meanders for a long stretch in the middle. it feels oddly drowsy and quaint, despite the pretty high stakes, and that does a lot to drag down the pacing. what i will say is that cho does a great job at weaving detailed settings and mythology--ah ma and the other spirits were a lot of fun to read about, and penang is rendered with artful care. thematic elements don't tie together as neatly as i hoped they would, and the open ending isn't exactly satisfying, but this quiet, measured, tactful novel raises a lot of questions about the nature of familial duty and the barriers to internal growth, and the extent to which you can pledge yourself to someone else's cause.
Profile Image for Fanna.
992 reviews502 followers
June 11, 2021
➵ so, so, so good. zen cho has this ability to sensitively string emotions with an intriguing paranormal plot line through a mesmerising writing that captivates change, love, and family in the haunting light of secrets, gods, and ghosts. i don't know if i would ever be able to write a coherent review but, rtc.

↣ listened to the audiobook on scribd

➵ really liked the order of the pure moon reflected in water so I had to instantly hit play on this audiobook.
Profile Image for Eilonwy.
814 reviews205 followers
June 16, 2021
Due to financial difficulties following her father’s cancer diagnosis, recent college grad Jessamyn Teoh and her parents move “back home” to Malaysia after 19 years in the US. But while she never quite felt at home as an immigrant to the US, Jess definitely doesn’t see Malaysia as home, either. Its unfamiliarity is further exacerbated when a ghost starts speaking to Jess, pulling her into a world of local gods and mediums — and an underworld of dangerous humans. Complicating things is that Jess can’t tell either her parents or her girlfriend about what’s going on. She doesn’t want to worry her parents, and Sharanya will think she’s gone crazy. Equally difficult is that she still can’t bring herself to tell her parents about her girlfriend.
First, shout-out to Doreen’s review, which made me put an immediate hold on this book. Doreen loved it because she’s Malaysian; I was drawn to it because I’ve visited Malaysia and loved the landscape, atmosphere, people, and language. (I greatly enjoyed reading all the tourist signage in both English and Malaysian, and was charmed by a model of “Batu-Batu Henge,” then mildly disappointed to realize what a prosaic name “Batu Cave” is when I visited that site and connected the words.) (Although “Mammoth Cave” (for example) is equally just a description … but I digress.) Jess’s family is Chinese Malaysian and speaks Hokkien, but they also use Malay terms and the ubiquitous “lah,” so the sense of place was very strong.

I loved the setting of this book. But I also loved everything else about it. The first chapter is a little clunky — it’s essentially an infodump to explain Jess’s family history and why they’re moving back to Penang — but the story picked up steam immediately once that was out of the way, and never slowed down again.

This was a perfect urban fantasy. It’s firmly rooted in the real world, but the supernatural elements felt completely believable. The “main character moves to unfamiliar place and strange things start happening” trope worked very well, as Jess has to navigate shocking experiences through a culture she doesn’t quite understand. (She’s all-too-familiar with the “where do we even start explaining this common-place knowledge?” look that’s frequently exchanged between her parents and other relations when they’re dealing with her.)

The pacing was great; the tension stayed high. There was one plot twist I thought was a little too obvious, but more that took me completely by surprise. Right up until the end, I was biting my nails and wondering how on earth everything was going to be resolved (especially since this is a standalone). There are some truly terrifying moments, in both the supernatural and real-world plots. But even at the worst moments, Jess maintains a pragmatism I greatly enjoyed and admired.

And then the final page made me burst into tears.

I loved every page of this book. And I’m definitely looking for Zen Cho’s other books ASAP!
Profile Image for Leanne.
271 reviews54 followers
July 3, 2021
Wow, I loved this. The story is set in Malaysia, and revolves around Jess, a jobless, closeted Harvard graduate who is forced to move back to Malaysia with her family. She starts hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother, Ah Ma, in her head, and realises she has to help her grandma settle a score against a man who offended a god. I myself am Malaysian, and so much of the story felt authentic, from the way the characters spoke, to the culture, and even the family dynamics. My dad’s side of the family is from Penang, where this story is set, and reading this book made me feel homesick.

But nostalgia aside, this book is great. Jess is a fantastic protagonist: she feels so duty-bound to her family, she’s obedient and even-tempered, but she grows a lot as a character throughout the book. Ah Ma was my favourite: like any Asian grandma, she’s snarky and sharp, but also manipulative, aggressive and very, very bossy. Their relationship is incredibly entertaining, and I loved how they slowly developed a grudging respect for each other. I really enjoyed both their characters, as well as the other side characters.

"If you overhear everything I hear, said Jess, "why would you need me to tell you what Kor Kor’s friends were saying about Ng Chee Hin?”

“Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?”

I don’t know what I can say about the plot without giving too much away. It involves an angry god, mediums, a complicated family history, many evil spirits, and a dead grandmother inheriting Jess’ body. It is action-packed and endlessly entertaining, and I couldn’t stop reading. It also strikes the right balance between action and its characters: aside from her grandmother haunting her, Jess also struggles to adapt to living in Malaysia, feeling horribly out of place as a closeted young woman who has spent her entire life in America.

She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. Her beautiful life, with her beautiful girlfriend, her friends, her creative projects, her ambitions.

It all seemed far away now. No wonder Ah Ma had found it easy to get into her head. She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.

In short, this is an excellent book and I’m glad to have finally found a Malaysian-inspired book that I really enjoyed. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,630 reviews325 followers
December 9, 2022
Pretty successful, if confusing, Southeast Asian UF novel. I wasn't sure this one was going to work for me at first. Zen Cho pretty much tosses the reader off the deep end -- and what I knew about Penang, Penang Hokkien https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penang_... and Malay-flavored Chinese mythology was, well, minuscule.* What I was hoping for was something like her "The First Witch of Damansara" https://uncannymagazine.com/article/f... -- which is wonderful. If you missed it, stop right now & read it. 6-star story! I'll wait.

OK, more background stuff you'll need -- or I did, anyway: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokkien
Hokkien is a dialect of Chinese that originated "in the south-eastern part of Fujian Province in southeastern Mainland China and is spoken widely there. It is also spoken widely in Taiwan (where it is usually known as Taiwanese or Holo) and by the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia and by other overseas Chinese all over the world." Jess, our MC, isn't fluent in Hokkien, but she's learning fast from the ghost of her grandmother! Jessamyn's parents grew up in Penang, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penang and had to return home after illness and business setbacks in the USA. Also helpful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlis... OK, it's for Singapore, but close enough, I think. I'm still not quite sure what "Ah [person's name]" means. Aunt? Uncle? Help! Jennifer? Book really, REALLY needed that glossary!

Anyway, the book had a slow and uncertain start for me, and I was wondering if it was going to work -- until Jess lets her grandmother Ah Ma's Hungry Ghost take over her slight Chinese-Malay body. Ah Ma proceeds to beat the crap out of a Malay gangster! And we're off to the races....

“A stressed zillennial lesbian fights gods, ghosts, gangsters & grandmas in 21st century Penang.”
-via the author’s twitter. Whoa! Pretty accurate, actually.....

So, book comes to a reasonably happy ending, despite straining my willing suspension of disbelief almost to the breaking-point more than once with the ghost-story stuff. And the unexplained local dialects also gets old, although much of it is (sorta kinda) clear from context. Well, cloudy-bright. A brief glossary would have helped. 3.5 stars. I'm pleased I read it, even though it was more work than I anticipated, and not my usual fare. Nor does it make me want to visit Penang!
* I did know that Indonesia adopted Malay as their national language shortly after gaining their independence: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indones...
"Most Indonesians, aside from speaking the national language, are fluent in at least one of the more than 700 indigenous local languages; examples include Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese"
Bahasa Indonesia was adopted sooner than I knew (1945). They didn't want to use Dutch, which few knew anyway. And none of this footnote has much to do with Zen Cho's book!
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