Genre: YA Fantasy / Paranormal
"One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride..."
Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family's darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.
Yay for diversity in YA fantasy! (Sorry, just had to get that out of my system.) There are so many things to love about this book: the setting of Malaya (a sort of historic Malaysia), the deep cultural traditions that aren't just given a head-nod but are integral to the plot, the premise itself, which is just so...chilling. Li Lan wants nothing to do with this ghost marriage--especially when she learns that her family originally had an arrangement with the Lim family for her to marry Tian Bai, the surviving heir--but almost from the outset, her would-be ghost husband begins to haunt her. And believe me, being stalked by a ghost in your sleep sounds is about as freaky as you can get.
Ms. Choo does a good job of setting up the story; and her characters are realistic and well drawn. I did get irritated with the insta-love feel of Li Lan's feelings towards Tian Bai, but Ms. Choo actually deals with this quite well at the end of the story (and that's all I'll say for fear of spoilers). Er Lang is another complex and curious character; I loved his interactions with Li Lan, his dry humor and laconic statements. Some might consider him patronizing, but I really saw his dialogue as being laden with wry humor and irony. Perhaps this reading points to a cultural difference between, say, American humor, British humor, and so forth. At any rate, Er Lang quickly became a favorite of mine.
The book lost points for me, however, in the difficulty I had empathizing with Li Lan, and with some of the writing itself. Every few pages I would find instances of clunky writing that took me out of the story...especially repeated instances of very, very clunky foreshadowing at the end of sections or chapters. A stronger editor might have just slashed out the offending sentences, and perhaps I should be a more forgiving reader--this is a debut novel, and as such is well done. Even though the writing didn't always draw me in, or Li Lan did something I couldn't help wondering about, I still found myself staying up late a couple nights in a row to keep reading--the world had me caught.
The Ghost Bride is a strong debut novel, with excellent world building and a fascinating plot. I am certainly looking forward to reading more of Ms. Choo's work.
About the Reviewer
Intisar Khanani is the author of Thorn and The Sunbolt Chronicles. A YA fantasy enthusiast, she spends her free time reading and writing as much as possible. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters.