A Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Old Chinatown – Spellbinding First Novel

When a reader is swept up in a genre he rarely reads, you can bet he’s reading a damn good book! That’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. Normally I would pass on kungfu fantasy, but this novel is set in 1898 San Francisco Chinatown – that’ll catch the attention of historical fiction readers – and moves swiftly through a phantasmagoria of spirits, ghosts and monsters that recalls images from Tolkien’s goblin wars to Alice in Wonderland. To wit, a three-tailed tiger in the shape of an orange-robed monk, soothsaying spirit seagulls, a spirit eyeball with arms and legs that loves soaking in cups of tea, a two-tailed shapeshifting warrior cat (think Cheshire Cat on acid), and hordes more all visible to a young woman born with eyes that can see all the supernatural denizens of the spirit world invisible to us.

She is Xian Li-lin, ghost hunter, spirit medium, exorcist, kungfu adept, destroyer of devils and monsters. However, Li-lin’s yin eyes make her something of a monster herself, and perhaps a little more inclined to empathize with monsters that do no harm. Still, as her father is a Taoist patriarch whose magic protects communities of ordinary Chinese from the dreaded spirit world, Li-lin is bound to defend Chinatown against all comers. When a vicious enemy injures her father, Li-lin must face unknown terrors using her own fledgling powers, calling up spirits and ghosts to assist her in her fight. And fight she does, taking down one after another adversary until, bleeding and broken, she confronts something too terrible even to contemplate

The extraordinary detail in this book suggests deep insight into the arcana of Chinese superstitions and sorcery, based on reading and research that included interviews with hundreds of informants on details of Chinese life and folklore, which must add something to the veracity of the narrative, assuming the informants were completely candid; many older Chinese are often reticent about revealing anything about themselves or their community. All that makes The Girl with Ghost Eyes an exceptional debut novel well worth the reading. Its shortcomings are quite few and only natural in a first effort. One may expect that the author’s style of telling this kind of story will develop in the books yet to come.

The author’s uninhibited use of Romanized Chinese words without apology is admirable; most such words are easily conned from context. Kungfu jargon obscures descriptions of fight scenes, as does Taoist argot muddle some underlying motivations. A glossary would be a welcome enhancement, helping readers recall meanings later in the narrative, although perhaps an impediment in the view of today’s readers.

Some key relationships are treated in a cursory manner. We learn little about the important character of Li-lin’s husband, and much about her father comes from backlloaded exposition, so the narrative seems driven more by plot and action than by character. One reader in conversation felt Li-lin’s character was not sufficiently engaging and recommended Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who battled monsters in a different medium and became an “archetype of the gothic heroine” as well as the galactic super-mom. However, in a genre that has always let action overwhelm character, it may be too much to expect very many exceptions; still, Ripley developed a great deal between her first appearance and her second tussle with monsters, and perhaps Xian Li-lin will also.

A contrived resolution has Li-lin learn in a few moments from her enemy a new fighting technique to save the day when she has been struggling over a couple hundred pages to improve her skills. This example, together with the sudden revelations from her father at the very end, unbalances the narrative.

The historical setting is more sparse than it might be. San Francisco’s Chinatown is described often, but the period in which the story is set fades – I was surprised when Li-lin comes upon horse-drawn carriages, which re-established the period in my mind, and I really should not have lost that dimension.

The narrative frequently is repetitious. If necessary at all, restatement needs to be different, varied. Often it just may not be necessary – instead of repeating a thought, bring it back later in a different guise to get the effect. And trust that the reader will remember the information from one chapter to the next, and certainly over several pages.

Told in 1st person, the writing is circumscribed by the sensibility of the protagonist Li-lin, and opportunities for enhanced figurative language and contrasting POV are limited to her experience. If nothing else, a 1st person narrator can incorporate what others have been heard to say, or imagined to say, and thereby enliven the writing.

The Historical Novel Society has said that the “book is difficult to follow, given the various unfamiliar worlds the reader must enter…” This is ingenuous coming from a “society” of historical novelists writing about unfamiliar worlds. Setting that aside, I am impressed by the author’s bravery just leaping right into the mysteries of Li-lin’s world with so little exposition. In the end, I think it works for many people happy to suspend credibility in return for admittance to the author’s fantasy, as well as for other readers who absorb the strange notions and make of them imagery of their own.

(Reposted after lost in system failure)

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