The SFF Librarian Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

SFF Librarian Reviews

Jeremy Brett

As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.

Let’s explore strange new worlds together!

Under Review:

Black Water Sister. By Zen Cho. Ace, 2021.

On the subject of fantasy with intriguing, “unusual” settings, I wanted to finish this month by raving about Zen Cho’s beautiful ghost story Black Water Sister (Ace, 2021, $17.00), steeped in contemporary Malaysian life and culture.  What I know about Malaysia can, shamefully, pretty much fill a moderately-sized thimble, and so it’s one of the true joys of Black Water Sister that it gives the reader (me, anyway) a fantastical lens into a vibrant culture and the people, the families, and the beliefs that populate it.  

The book’s protagonist is Jessamyn (Jess) Teoh, a Malaysian American recently returned with her immigrant family to George Town in Penang. Jess is very much at loose ends—unemployed despite her degree from Harvard, deeply closeted (with a secret girlfriend back in the States), raised in America but now forced to return with her parents to her unfamiliar birthplace. Any one of these things would be problem enough, but Jess’ world is shaken up even more when she begins hearing the voice of her estranged (and dead) maternal grandmother in her head. Responding to that voice is the fateful first step for Jess on a journey involving, among other things, family vengeance, ethnic strife, corrupt business practices, and close interactions with members of the Malaysian pantheon (including the menacing title character).

The intimacy of those divine interactions is a real highlight of the novel—those of us socially and culturally conditioned to consider God as a being of distance, as something set apart from humanity, should find fascinating the concept of deities that engage directly and bodily with people. It occurs over and over again in Black Water Sister as gods and humans converse, share bodies and minds and emotions, and struggle with each other physically and ethereally. This kind of close contact with the divine bears a particular form of joy and an equal amount of disquiet and menace—yes, we may touch the sacred, but also, we doubt what we encounter: what is our role in a world with rules set by supernatural entities? How much agency do we really have, as human beings?

The idea of agency runs through the novel. Not only does Jess serve—sometimes willingly, sometimes not—as a vessel for her grandmother, but, in her more mundane life, she also faces an ongoing loss of independence. She is stuck fast in her life. She relies on her parents, who in turn rely on their family for employment opportunities and financial support (Jess and her parents are, for example, staying with her aunt because they have no house of their own yet). Thrust back into a world she had left behind two decades ago as a small child, Jess also feels herself ensnared and confused by the linguistic and ethnic rivalries endemic to a multicultural place like Penang, having to rely on more knowledgeable family members for information.

Jess feels trapped by her romantic situation as well—she is deeply in love with her girlfriend Sharanya, but is afraid to come out to her own family. The very first line of the novel hits this fear head-on: “The first thing the ghost said to Jess was: Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?” (“Pengkid” is a Malay word meaning “lesbian”). From the novel’s outset, Jess is threatened (through potential discovery of her secret) into surrendering her own agency to serve others. Although the most dramatic parts of the book, of course, involve Jess’ life-threatening struggles against enemies supernatural and physical alike, just as fundamental to the story is Jess’ maturation as a person who finally decides to take control of her own destiny, and be reborn as a new and independent spirit. No mere fantasy, no simple ghost tale, Black Water Sister is a powerful and compelling story of emergence and reemergence.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s