The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson

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Title: The Girl with Ghost Eyes

Author: Boroson, M.H. (Author’s Website)

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mythological Fiction

Bibliographic: Talos, 288 pages, Hardcover List Price $24.99, Paperback List Price $7.99, Audiobook List Price 19.95, ISBNs 9781940456362, 9781940456669

Publication Date: November 3, 2015

Rating: ★★★☆☆/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: strong female, action-packed, atmospheric, compelling, lush, richly detailed

Why I picked it up: A few months ago, I read Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and absolutely loved it, and this book keeps getting recommended as a read-alike.

S.I.A.S.: Li-lin, a Daoist priest with the ability to see ghosts, has to use all her skills and cunning to try to defeat her father’s old enemy.

Summary: Xian Li-lin is a 23-year-old widow living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. She was born with yin eyes, which mean that she has the ability to see and interact with ghosts, spirits, monsters, and other creatures invisible to most of the human world. This comes in extremely handy in her line of work — her father is a seventh-degree Daoshi exorcist, and she herself has been ordained to the second degree. The story opens with a visit from Tom Wong, a friend of her late husband, and his friend Mr. Liu, a one-armed man who needs Li-lin to travel to the spirit world and give a passport to his deceased friend — so he says. But when Li-lin finds the friend, she learns that it was a trap. He severs her tie with the human world while Mr. Liu carves a spell into her body, with goal of possessing her and using her body to murder her father. Li-lin is too skilled at martial arts for the ploy to work, however, and she manages to evade capture and protect her body. Unfortunately, this leaves her stranded in the spirit world with no way to contact her father and no apparent way to get home. Her one friend in the spirit world, a ghost cat named Mao’er, can’t help.

Eventually, Li-lin finds a guide in the form of a ghost eyeball, who she calls Mr. Yanqiu. He helps her back to the human world, and she learns that her father is in the infirmary. He cut out his own eye in order to help her get home — Mr. Yanqiu — but not out of any affection for her, simply to prevent himself from losing face. In order to start repaying this debt, Li-lin decides to get to the bottom of the situation and find out who is trying to kill her father. She finds out that Mr. Liu — whose full name is Liu Qiang — is a Daoshi of the fifth ordination: significantly more powerful than she is, but significantly less than her father.

Li-lin begins her investigation by visiting Shuai Hu, a Buddhist monk of whom her father is afraid, and for good reason: because of her yin eyes, Li-lin can see that Shuai Hu is actually a tiger in human form, with three tails (a sign of immense power). She worries that she won’t be able to kill him (since, as an exorcist, that’s her duty), but Mr. Yanqiu points out that perhaps she won’t need to — something she had never considered.

Eventually, Li-lin comes to realize that Tom Wong has betrayed both her family and his own, and is helping Mr. Liu to raise a Kulou-Yuanling: a monster made out of the bodies of 100 men who died badly, intent on killing as many people as possible. They plan to destroy Chinatown society, and take power for themselves. Li-lin knows that she needs to fight them: her father is incapacitated, Shuai Hu won’t help because of his vows of nonviolence, and she loses a bet with a man named Bok Choy (the leader of a local gang called the Xie Lang tong) so they won’t help either. Desperately, she turns to the spirit world: Mao’er agrees to fight, and she gets some help from her friends the seagulls, who have a spiritual ability of their own.

Evaluation:  I listened to this as an audiobook, and I think I would have liked it a lot more if I had just read the print version. The narrator’s tone tended toward the melodramatic, and she injected emotion into areas where I didn’t feel it belonged (such as descriptions of objects without an emotional charge). The reason I chose to listen to this, however, was because I have no idea how to pronounce Chinese words and wanted to hear them. In that regard, the audiobook is fantastic; it would have been very easy to handle the transition between the standard American accent and the Chinese accent awkwardly, but Emily Woo Zeller handles it well. I found some of the particular voices she chose to be extremely grating — Mao’er (the cat) and Jiujiu (the seagull) come to mind, although that could have been a choice since neither character is human.

Other than that, the book had no major issues. The plot was extremely complicated, but not at all difficult to follow. The action flows logically from one event to the next, and the characters were three-dimensional for the most part. I was surprised several times by how much depth the characters had. Shuai Hu, for example: he was born a tiger, and was continually urged to kill people by the ghost of his latest victim, until he killed a Buddhist monk committed to the enlightenment of all things and turned his life around. I would read a whole book about that, and it helped me really understand what was at stake for him and why he refused to help Li-lin fight the kulou-yuanling.

I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience is for this book. At my library, it’s shelved with Adult Sci-Fi, but I would absolutely not call it that (we don’t have a fantasy section, and so those titles tend to get mixed in). The world-building is very good, so I would recommend it to people who like fantasy or science fiction and are looking for something a little bit different.

The book’s biggest flaw is that it can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially during the fighting or action sequences. This might not be something I would have noticed if I were reading the book in print, but it seemed to me that I kept hearing a lot of the same descriptive words over and over.

Significance: The author has announced that there will be a sequel, but it’s unclear how many books there will be in the series total.

Readalikes: The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo. The Secrets of Jin-shei, by Alma Alexander. Paper Mage, by Leah R. Cutter.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. For twenty-first century readers, the world Li-Lin inhabits can feel jarring. In what ways is Li-Lin’s world different from our own? How is it similar?
  2. This novel deals with the idea that immigrants bring their ghosts and their deities with them. Do you believe that? Why would Chinese ghosts come to San Francisco?
  3. Li-lin is treated a certain way because she is a woman. How does this impact the story? How might it have been different if she had been a man?
  4. How much of Li-lin’s personality is shaped by her status as a widow? Did her husband’s death provide motivation for all of her actions, throughout the story?
  5. Why is Bok Choy so different from the other characters? What point is he trying to make?

Lists and Awards: LibraryReads Favorites 2015.

Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly. A.V. Club. Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

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