24 September, 2021

Litstack Recs| Commonwealth & Black Water Sister

Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

Back in 2016 I reviewed Zen Cho’s promising debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown for LitStack readers. I found this alternate take on Britain’s Regency era to be imaginative and lively, but somewhat uneven. I was interested in keeping track of Cho’s career – but not enough to actually follow up on her new works.


Ah, but Black Water Sister–now, this is the work of a mature author who is in full control of her subject matter, while still maintaining her fresh and very accessible fantasy voice.

We first meet Jess as she’s preparing to move with her parent to Malaysia – “back home” to them but not to Jess, who has lived practically her entire life in the US. But after the loss of their savings due to her father’s bout with cancer, they have no choice but to return and live with relatives while trying to reestablish their lives, and Jess, a recent college graduate but without any prospects, is moving with them.

It doesn’t help that she has started hearing the voice of her cantankerous – and dead – grandmother in her head.

Black Water Sister is less a creepy horror story and more an otherworldly – and sometimes creepy – ghost story, and that tact serves author Cho well. Using Malaysia as a backdrop, with its multiple Asian cultures rife with not only ghosts but manifest gods, both lesser and major, that permeate their everyday lives, Cho is able to weave a narrative that embraces both modern life and ingrained, age old spiritualities, with men and women who are on Facebook yet serve as mediums to allow supernaturals to take over their bodies.

Jess is the perfect narrator to lead us through this society – the Americanized outsider, who stumbles with the language and needs a lot of guidance from her Malaysian family – and her dead grandmother – to guide her – and us – through the peculiarities of her new life. But she also has a fondness for the food, the culture and the atmosphere of her heritage that allows for an acceptance that Western readers might otherwise struggle with. Jess leads us through the story without our feeling that we are being led.

And Jess had more internal conflicts than merely hearing her dead grandmother in her head. She is concerned for her parents and their struggles, and straddles both self-doubt and an internal confidence that only a young person who is accomplished and yet adrift can pull off. She is committed to her now long-distance girlfriend and yet has not come out to her family. She is drawn to a successful young entrepreneur who is part of both the modern and the arcane, and yet is the son and heir of the millionaire real estate magnate who is the focus of her grandmother’s spite and anger, and whose current development project threatens the existence of an ancient temple that factors deeply in a family conflict that Jess didn’t even know existed. Plus, the rabbit hole her grandmother leads her down quickly turns dangerous, both metaphysically and, well, physically.

All these layers unfold at a fast pace. Everywhere Jess turns more questions are raised than are answered, threatening to overwhelm her, especially when the ethereal, threatening Black Water Sister makes herself known. But Jess tenaciously refuses to back down, even to the ghost of her headstrong mother, and eventually even to her own doubts. There is a touching, cleansing resolution to the story, not unexpected but deftly – and touchingly – handled.

Black Water Sister may not be the most challenging ghost story out there, but it is a deeply compelling one. I found it to be very entertaining, and will definitely be looking for Zen Cho’s next offering – for real, this time.

~ Sharon Browning

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