Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho (2021)


This mischievous Malaysian-set novel is an adventure featuring family, ghosts and local gods – from Hugo Award winning novelist Zen Cho.

Her grandmother may be dead

But she’s not done with life… Yet

As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans.

Jess soon learns her ‘voice’ belongs to Ah Ma, her late grandmother. She worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. And when a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge. Now she’s decided Jess will help, whether she wants to or not.

As Ah Ma blackmails Jess into compliance, Jess fights to retain control. But her irrepressible relative isn’t going to let a little thing like death stop her, when she can simply borrow Jess’s body to make mischief. As Jess is drawn ever deeper into a world of peril and family secrets, getting a job becomes the least of her worries.


Thank you very much to the publisher for sending me a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

It took me a little bit of time to get into this novel, but I think that was mostly due to my own concentration levels at the time of reading! Once I did, I had loads of fun with this book. The story is fast-paced, almost breathlessly exciting at times, and the momentum really carries the reader along as we follow Jess on her adventures. There is a kind of energy and originality to the story that reminds me of YA, though Jess is a slightly older protagonist.

The way the gods and ghosts are integrated into the narrative is striking – Cho manages to use them in both frightening and funny ways, and I loved the sense of see-sawing between real peril and mild irritation as Jess faces the Black Water Sister and gets annoyed by her grandmother’s spirit, sometimes simultaneously! I really enjoyed the way the ancestral spirits are not relegated to myth or metaphor, but are real, physical presences in the novel.

A lot happens in Black Water Sister, and I did find myself getting a little bit confused at times, but I think that’s partly due to the fact that the story is so original and unexpected. It’s easy to get slightly disorientated when you never know what’s around the next corner, and it’s not an unpleasant sensation at all! Cho catapults you into a world where anything can happen, and it is enormous fun to go along for the ride. Jessamyn is a great protagonist, and the conclusion is satisfying and moving. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes to be surprised by a twisty adventure full of energy and spirit(s).

Black Water Sister is published by Macmillan and is available to purchase here.


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