Black Water Sister by Zen Cho is an interesting fantasy in real life. In Black Water Sister, a queer girl decides to fight a god.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
“She can’t be a medium,” said Mom. “She graduated from Harvard!”
I really enjoyed this book. I found the entire thing to be a good balance of lore, culture, and queer zillenial chaos. Jess didn’t move to Malaysia to become a medium, much less believe in the spirits of her family. She doesn’t know the rules of working with gods, and thus, she is regularly breaking them. On top of her family being worried about her, her girlfriend being stressed, and her grandma screaming in her head- Jessa is going through it. The lore in this book was built up incredibly well, with cultural aspects explained in a tangible way.
“You know this is a prison of your own making.”
I did get a little lost with the writing at times. I struggled to know who was talking, and who was in possession of Jessa’s body. This could have been a formatting issue with the ARC copy, and so I can’t fully comment on it in the released book. While the personalities of the god, grandmother, and Jess were different, they had moments of seeming too alike to tell apart. This plays a large role in the overarching plot of the book, which is understandable. However, it also played a role in my confusion.
“She had been given a second chance. She wasn’t about to waste it.”
As a queer person, the emotional turmoil of coming out or not that Jess went through felt realistic. It was extra, underlying stress to the regular stress of life. This causes you to put it off repeatedly until things start to come crashing down. I can’t imagine trying to balance that, on top of a god seeking vengeance and a grandmother wanting to take down an influential businessman. I wish we had gotten a little more of Jess’s own personal history, however, this story was a fascinating one all around. The concept felt new, and the way it was executed was fantastic.
“You had to die first before you could be reborn.”
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.