Tag: Zen Cho

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780451487995

“Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side. But you had to die before you could be reborn.”

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business with a local gangster turned real estate developer who plans to tear down the god’s temple to build a condominium tower. She has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her get her revenge on the developer and save the temple. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly.

The story begins with the family returning to Malaysia, and Jess’s time in America quickly begins to feel like a different life. Although Jess is in a long-distance relationship, we do not learn much about her time with her girlfriend. Soon, she begins “to feel like she’d made Sharanya up, like she’d never had a girlfriend at all.” This serves to characterize how all-consuming Jess’s situation in Penang has become, but it also leaves the reader with minimal investment in the relationship when Jess’s erratic behaviour begins to cause some strain between them. Sharanya feels even less real to the reader than she does to Jess. Ultimately, however, this is a story that is more about family and history than romance. Jess’s mother has never spoken much about her family, and that silence contains a vast sea of omissions.

Jess has an American brashness about her that quickly gets her into trouble as she tries to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Penang, where bribery and corruption run rampant, and seemingly upstanding businessmen often have dark pasts. Even a simple mechanic can be more than he seems, as Jess discovers when she learns that her mother’s brother is also a spiritual medium, a dangerous and not necessarily lucrative lifestyle. Opposition to the impending condo development lands her uncle first in the hospital and then in jail, and Jess faces multiple beatings and an attempted rape as she becomes more deeply involved in Ah Ma’s vendetta. Through dreams and memories, Jess also shares in the experiences of her grandmother’s hardscrabble life, and the short life and violent death of the woman who would become the blood-thirsty god known as the Black Water Sister.

The standout character of this story is one who is dead before it even begins. Jess’s maternal grandmother Ah Ma has a sharp tongue and a steely core. She is a woman who lived a hard life, and the pragmatism that necessitated has followed her into the afterlife. A little thing like death is not going to keep her from exacting her revenge on Ng Chee Hin or saving the temple from his greed. Ah Ma can also be surprisingly funny. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?” Ah Ma says dismissively when Jess interrogates her about what measure of privacy she can expect when she’s being haunted, and why Ah Ma doesn’t know everything that is going on around them. If you enjoyed characters like Mak Genggang in Cho’s previous work, Sorcerer to the Crown, Ah Ma is cut from similar cloth and has a commanding presence in the story. Powerful, complicated, and determined, she is forced to contend with a granddaughter who has all the same capacities but not necessarily the same priorities.

Black Water Sister is a truly standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission as much as with the gods before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2016

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.

The Hero’s Walk

ISBN 0-345-45092-2

the-heros-walkSripathi Rao and his family live in the once-grand Big House, on Brahmin Street in the seaside Indian town of Toturpuram. His mother Ammayya, his wife Nirmala, and his unmarried sister Putti all reside under his roof, along with his unemployed adult son, Arun. Absent, but never spoken of, is his daughter, Maya, who went away to school in North America, and then defied her family by breaking off her traditional engagement to marry a white man. It has been nine years since Maya’s exile, but still her father stubbornly refuses to take her calls or allow her to visit. But everything changes when a phone call from Canada brings the news that Maya and her husband are dead, leaving their daughter Nandana orphaned. Apart from the initial upset, the events of The Hero’s Walk are mostly quiet and subtle, though the environs are lively and colourful. The tension comes from the interactions of a cast of idiosyncratic and richly drawn characters who inhabit Big House. Anita Rau Badami has crafted a fascinating and complicated family dynamic that is thoroughly disrupted by Nandana’s arrival. The passing of the grudge against Maya with her death will cause Sripathi, and indeed all the Raos, to re-examine their prejudices and preconceptions. One great tragedy leads to many new beginnings.

Categories: Canadian 

Ruin and Rising 

ISBN 978-0-8050-9461-9

Cover image for Ruin and Rising by Leigh BardugoAlthough I’ve singled out Ruin and Rising here, this is honestly a tip of the hat to Leigh Bardugo’s entire Grisha Trilogy, as well as Six of Crows, which is set in the same world. I read all four over the course of the year, and I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom, which completes the Six of Crows duology. The Grisha Trilogy centers on Alina Starkov, a military cartographer who is belatedly discovered to be a sun summoner, a rare type of Grisha who can call and manipulate light. I listened to the audio version of the series, which is excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang, who is also a member of the composite cast for the audio version of Six of Crows. On more than one occasion I found myself sitting in a parking lot, not wanting to turn off my car until I found out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent.  Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series had me hooked from the get-go.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult 

Sorcerer to the Crown 

ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen ChoI read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho as part of the Diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club hosted by Naz at Read Diverse Books. Cho’s tale is set in a magical England during the Napoleonic Wars, and centers on Zacharias Wythe, adopted black son of Sir Stephen Wythe, and the newest Sorcerer Royal following his guardian’s death. Unhappy with his ascension, England’s traditionalist magical families have begun to agitate, blaming Zacharias for England’s long-standing decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. In both writing style and setting, Sorcerer to the Crown is very reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but Cho’s protagonists are vastly different from Clarke’s, and they are the driving force behind the story. Cho also weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, revealing machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction. Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue, and even a dash of romance.

Categories: Fantasy

Station Eleven

ISBN 978-0-3853-5330-4

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelAt a production of King Lear in Toronto, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the early hours of the epidemic. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe. Instead, for the most part, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who are old enough to remember the pre-apocalypse world, and these memories are juxtaposed with the many productions of Shakespeare in the text. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.

Categories: Canadian, Dystopian, Science Fiction


ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi NovikAgnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention. Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale. I also really enjoyed the fact that Naomi Novik continued to centre Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia, even after Agnieszka is taken to the tower. Uprooted also has definite flavours of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone.This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling.

Categories: Fairy Tales, Fantasy

Honestly, this was a hard list to compile. I read around 150 books this year, and a lot of them were excellent. If you love vampires, don’t skip Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Sylvain Neuvel’s sci-fi debut Sleeping Giants is not to be missed. I adored The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, and I am enjoying Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series tremendously. Maybe I needed to do a Top 10 this year?

What were your favourite fiction reads of 2016?

Sorcerer to the Crown

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Choby Zen Cho

ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

“It is shockingly ungallant of men to withhold from us our fair share of magic.”

Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England.

Diverse-SFF-book-clubZen Cho sets Sorcerer to the Crown in a recognizable historical England, during the Napoleonic Wars. However, her England is flavoured with magic, still touched by Faery, however much that magic may have been depleted in recent years. The once powerful society of magicians has lost some of its lustre, and the traditionalist magical families are pining for their glory days. Cho’s prose style also has a decidedly historical flavour. This setting and style are certainly reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it is in her two main characters that Cho reveals the true tack of her story, one that moves in a different direction from Clarke’s tale.

Zacharias is a complicated figure. He had no ambitions of his own to public office, preferring a more retired existence, but his dedication to the wishes of his guardian compels him to take up the Staff of office when Sir Stephen dies. Indeed, this has been the story of much of Zacharias’ life. On a ship in the Caribbean, Sir Stephen recognized Zacharias’ magical talent, and purchased him from the ship’s captain. Zacharias was taken to England, given a gentleman’s upbringing, a first rate magical education, and his emancipation on his thirteenth birthday. He has laboured all his life under a debt of gratitude, supressing complicated feelings about the fact that Sir Stephen did not buy his parents’ freedom from the ship’s captain. Nor did he feel he could disagree with Sir Stephen in life, lest he be perceived as ungrateful. Zacharias is essentially engaged in respectability politics, for “his chief aim had always been that he should be beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation.” We get to see this fraught dynamic unravel, as Zacharias is haunted by Sir Stephen’s ghost, and their relationship after death has none of the boundaries it held in life.

Whereas Zacharias is a cautious and prudent character, always concerned with appearances and reputation, Prunella is much more headstrong and carefree. While Zacharias is retiring, a reluctant politician, Prunella is quite openly ambitious. After being dismissed from a girls’ school where young women of magical talent are taught to supress their abilities, Prunella sets her sights on London, and a marriage that will allow her to make her way in society. When the Sorcerer Royal visits the school to give a lecture, Prunella decides that Zacharias Wythe is her means of escape, and introduction to the society of England’s magical families. She seems quite unaware of his unpopularity, or the barriers their backgrounds may cause. Zacharias is a less challenging character, easier to like, but Prunella pushes the envelope with her assertiveness and naked desire to succeed.

In addition to two nuanced and intriguing primary characters, another great figure in Sorcerer to the Crown is Mak Genggang, an elderly woman from the island of Janda Baik. England has a colonial interest in the island nation, but the Sultan of the tiny country is plagued by magical creatures, and complains of the dangerous power of the island’s magical elders, all women. He comes to England seeking help to supress these women, implicitly threatening to ally with the French if England does not assist him. Determined that the Sultan’s voice will not be the only one heard in England, Mak Genggang follows him abroad. She is living proof that women can be powerful magicians and community leaders. In addition to serving as a female mentor for Prunella, Mak Genggang is also the means by which Cho weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction.

Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue. Even as he tries to solve the problem of England’s decreasing magical atmosphere, Zacharias is fighting off assassination attempts, and struggling to negotiate England’s tricky relationship with the neighbouring realm of Faery. Though Britain’s magical power has decreased, magical artifacts and creatures seem to be lurking everywhere, if you look beneath the surface. There is even a touch of romance at the periphery, though it is certain be more significant to the next two volumes of this planned trilogy, which begins with this well-rounded romp through magical England.


Want to get in on the Diverse SFF Book Club? Visit Read Diverse Books and find out what we’re reading in August!