I’ve said before that this isn’t a book review blog, and I stand by that. My taste in literature is a bit eclectic to try to come up with a unified theme for a review blog, and I just don’t trust myself to be able to read with enough attention to detail to quickly form an opinion and be able to put out quality reviews on a schedule. Besides, while I do read to see what kinds of things are getting published, reading is for the most part a leisure activity for me, even if I end up analyzing the living daylights out of whatever I pick up. I’ll post brief reviews and reactions on Goodreads and my personal Facebook page, and I’ve entertained the idea of doing book reviews for money, but it would take a really special book for me to post a full-blown review.
Enter M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes, published November 2015 under Talos Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. The novel was titled City of Strangers when it became the 2012 Speculative Fiction Winner of The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Colorado Gold Contest. Boroson ended up signing with the agent that judged his category, and the rest, they say, is history.
Our protagonist is Xian Li-lin, an immigrant, young widow, and daughter of a Daoshi exorcist in 19th century San Francisco’s Chinatown. On top of already-formidable magical prowess and martial arts skills, she has yin eyes, the ability to see and more fully interact with the spirit world, which is a source of shame for her family and in particular her father. When a malevolent sorcerer comes into the picture, it’s up to Li-lin, her father, and her various supernatural companions to stop him from razing Chinatown.
It turns out that Boroson’s educational background is in Chinese language and religion, and he cites his influences as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, many styles and genres of Asian cinema, and fantasy novels, all of which were present and accounted for. The novel is not a slow burn by any stretch of the word. It’s intriguing and pretty good about pacing, but it was not afraid to jump into the action right away. It’s heavy on the action, but there are plenty of quieter moments to balance things out. The prose was decent and easy to read, especially during action sequences, which are notoriously difficult to write but I think were executed quite well here. The supporting cast is full of memorable, unique characters and entities, and it’s nice to see a fantasy novel derive so much from Chinese culture, folklore, and legend. Boroson admits in the author’s note where and why he took creative liberties with his research for the sake of his narrative, and keeping in mind that I’m not trained in any of the cultures he draws from his justifications make sense and seem to have been made with a considerable amount of thought, care, and respect.
The worldbuilding was what impressed me as I was reading. Like I mentioned before, Chinese language and culture play a big role in the novel, and various spirits and legends walk the spirit realm and sometimes the streets. It was a very colorful, very detailed world that made sense both when in the aforementioned quiet moments and in the more action-packed ones. It works as a novel, and while the pictures it paints are very vivid it’s one of those novels that I think deserves a good film adaptation. As I was reading the climax, actually, I thought it would make a phenomenal Studio Ghibli production (which isn’t outside of the realm of possibility because they’ve adapted a western story before: Howl’s Moving Castle was based on an English novel of the same title written by Diana Wynne Jones). Normally I’m apprehensive about turning books into movies, but this is one that I think could work if handled by someone who has a great deal of respect for the source material and isn’t shy about splurging on production design.
As for those elements that I appreciated after I finished the book and started to think for a while, the relationship between Li-lin and her father is definitely worth mentioning. Maybe it’s because Li-lin is an older protagonist, but their relationship struck me as fairly realistic and a refreshing change from similar books. Parent-child conflicts in literature tend to go one of two ways: either the parent(s) are absent—dead, gone, or just there to flesh out the world but not really play a role in the story—in order to make coming-of-age plots and “You’re not my real dad!” moments easier to write, or the parent(s) and child in question love each other in name only and the bitterness is so extreme that it’s frankly a miracle that no one has been disowned yet. This is not the case with these two characters. They’re very similar to each other: they’re both actively invested in protecting Chinatown as well as each other, they’re both very pragmatic (he gouges out his own eye and transforms it into a spirit to save her life, and she’s willing to perform dark but powerful magic to save the world), and they’re both deeply tied to their shared culture, which in itself was a nice change, as so often the younger character wants to completely abandon the old ways. The conflicts that do arise between them are not black-and-white, and most of their differences stem from how they approach their shared ideas and values rather than simply having different ones. While some of these differences are irreconcilable, as with any healthy parent and child relationship, even though they disagree, it’s very clear that they would do anything for each other.
As for our main character, I really liked Li-lin. She’s a very interesting protagonist, and I’m of the belief that she deserves to join Hermione Granger, Lyra Belaqua, and Katniss Everdeen as one of the great ladies of young adult literature. Sure, there are the superficial reasons for it: she’s a young woman engaged in a conflict far bigger than herself that’s very capable of fighting but still has her vulnerabilities. What really sets her apart for me, though, is the amount of agency she’s given and how she takes advantage of it. She lives in a time period where women weren’t exactly first-class citizens, she comes from a culture that had a tendency to reinforce those ideas, and we even see that she’s internalized a lot of them, and she manages to become an educated, powerful heroine of a fantasy story in spite of it. However, she still follows that culture not for unspecified reasons or even because other people say so, but because she consciously makes choices. This particularly struck me in her decision to remain a chaste widow: even older characters tell her that times are changing and she can still remarry, but she chooses not to not because that’s just the way it’s done, but because she chooses to honor her husband’s memory in that way. She might not have a lot of room to make choices, but the choices she makes aren’t made lightly, and it’s mostly through her active involvement rather than luck that the plot happens.
It’s been a while since a book really took me on an adventure. I don’t mean to say that I haven’t read other great books recently, because I have. What I mean by an “adventure” is the feeling of being so swept up in the characters, action, and setting of a book that you become a child again because of how gosh-darn invested you were in something imaginary. It’s the kind of feeling that transcends merely being “into” a book or even “loving” it into living and breathing it for the duration. When I got to the end, I actually wondered if there would be a sequel, which surprised me because I don’t think I’ve actually hoped for a book series to continue since Harry Potter and Guardians of Ga’Hoole. I’m not old enough to say things like “This made me feel young again,” but it was awesome and a bit surreal to be caught up in something in such a childlike way again.
And indeed, it did remind me of those stories that I enjoyed when I was younger. I was a teenager when I read these novels, but if you’re looking for a literary comparison, think Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan) meets His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) for how the novel approaches its base culture and the kind of epic fantasy storytelling we’re looking at. If you watched any of Cartoon Network’s offerings in the early 2000s, you could also think of a young adult version of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee: the novel is considerably more mature and serious than that show, but it’s similar enough that those of you that remember it will recognize it in these pages and appreciate that the ideas followed you into adulthood.
Long story short, I would happily recommend this novel. It’s a good fit for fans of history, Eastern mythology, fantasy, and genuinely strong women that are nevertheless a little different from everyone else out there. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think Boroson is a guy we need to keep an eye on: he doesn’t strike me as a “one and done” kind of novelist and I, for one, can’t wait for more.