Book Review: The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. A tale of demons, Chinese sorcery, and kung-fu.

I have a feeling I’m going to have a take a holiday to recuperate from the holidays. December’s only halfway through and I’m already struggling to keep up. I only just made time to put up the xmas decor yesterday—and that’s only the indoor stuff…haven’t even put up the outdoor lights, yet. And it keeps raining over here!! I’m dreaming really hard for a white Christmas but looks like it might just be a muddy Christmas this year.

Oh pooh!

But in the meantime, here’s to another good book!

Title: The Girl with Ghost Eyes

Author: M. H. Boroson

Genre: Fantasy

Days to read it: About 4-5 days over a busy holiday week!

Synopsis:

Li-lin can see spirits. For her whole life, her father has tried to cure her of the cursed “yin” eyes that allow her to see the monstrous things that roam the spirit world overlaying the streets of her home in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Everyone knows those with yin eyes go mad and die young. But, though the sights disturb her, her ability to see the spirits of the other world has helped her gain a deeper understanding of the world around her and the sorcery that can be used to connect the two worlds: the Daoist magic of the Maoshan people. After her husband’s death, Li-lin took over his sorcerous and kung-fu training to become a Maoshan Daoshi like her Father so that she can help her father hunt and exorcise ghosts—protecting the common people from evil or restless spirits. For years, her father has been working in league with the Ansheng Tong, a benevolent gang of Chinese immigrants that run Chinatown. For years, Chinatown has been well protected. Until one night, Li-lin is betrayed and finds herself stranded in the spirit world, used as bait to trap her father into making a critical mistake that could compromise all of Chinatown. But no one believes her when she tells them that something sinister is brewing in the spirit world. Who would listen to a woman, a widow, a cursed girl? None of the men who run Chinatown believe her. With her father injured and unable to protect Chinatown, Li-lin will have to fight Chinatown’s enemies on her own. Armed with only her ancient Chinese sorcery, her kung-fu, and her spirit companions, she will have to defeat a great evil from the spirit world before it destroys all she holds dear.

Impressions:

After finishing The Girl with the Ghost Eyes, I was not surprised to read on the back jacket flap that M. H. Boroson is a fan of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and kung fu movies. Li-lin is the Chinese Buffy of Chinatown. She roams the streets, kicking monster butt with her qi gong, her bagua kungfu, and her delightful rope dart. While Buffy is armed with stake, cross and holy water, Li-lin has her paper talismans, peachwood sword, and bagua mirror. While Buffy’s bestiary is filled with western-inspired monsters, Li-lin’s is filled with the grotesqueries of Asian myth and legend. Both girls have to fight against creatures and men double their size. Both girls operate counter to the roles given to them by society.

Li-lin, in particular, struggles against the dictates of 19th century Asian tradition and the stifled roles women played in society at the time. She is an oddity—underestimated by the men around her. Being a Maoshan Daoshi is already lonely enough—being a woman and a widow with yin eyes makes her even more of an outcast. Throughout the story, Li-lin frequently has to choose whether to obey her father and dutifully follow the traditional path, or strike out on her own and let herself blossom in her own way. In the Chinese customs of the time, there are many rules of etiquette governing women’s behavior so there is much strain between her desire to behave “properly” and “save face” for her father and her desire to do what feels right to her and what makes her happy. It all makes for great tension in the character arc and insight into the times.

The plot and setting remind me a bit of Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the world of the Old Kingdom: Li-lin’s father is trapped/hurt by evil sorcery and like Sabriel, Li-lin has to master her “necromantic” sorcery, navigate the dangerous world of the dead, and gain the help and trust of spirit companions old as time with motivations not necessarily tied to human welfare. Like the disreputable Dog or Mogget, spirits like Mr. Yanqiu the eyeball spirit or Jiujiu and Mao’er the seagull and cat spirits can be bound to their masters or choose to align with someone for the moment at their whim. Some of the otherworldly monsters in the book give me the goosebumps, others are just silly and nonsensical—all are amusing and add to a very textured tale.

The world of The Girl with Ghost Eyes—both the spirit world and the human world—feels very rich and authentic and artfully inspired by Asian mythology and history. The streets of Chinatown come to life on the pages, with the smells of pungent tofu and incense, the dry rustle of paper talismans, and the swing of the traditional queues worn by the men. The white-haired demoness featured in the story has flavors of the old Chinese legend, Madame White Snake. The tiger spirit and Mao’er characters each have many tails and bring to mind the stories of Nine-tailed Fox spirits popular in Asian cultures. There is even a reference to the Karakasa or Chinese umbrella spirit which is a mischievous spirit from Japanese folklore. If you enjoyed the fresh variety of bizarre demons and spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, you’ll be entertained by the number of different monsters in this book!

In terms of history, we get a nice feel for a Chinatown adjusting to the advances of the industrial revolution.  We hear a bit about the struggles of Chinese immigrants at the time and the unofficially sanctioned tongs or gangs that run the streets. There is strain here between the superstitions and beliefs held by Chinese following the traditional ways and the emerging modern-thinking Chinese who have adopted more western ways and beliefs. There are also clashes between whites and Asians. All of this gives the story the feel of a “gaslamp fantasy”.

Oh, and did I mention the kung-fu?

The Girl with Ghost Eyes delivers the epic-ness of an old martial arts movie with flying kicks, whip-fast fists, and qi gong fleetness as well as all the accompanying talk about honor, pride, and discipline. And as a bonus, we get all these awesome scenes from an underdog’s point of view. I do enjoy it when the protagonist surprises everyone!

Though I felt the pacing of the action was sometimes a bit exhausting (it felt like there was constant action without much resting time in between), overall, I am very happy to have read M. H. Boroson’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes and entered this very imaginative and well-researched world. Because he was able to speak/read mandarin, the author was able to tap into primary Chinese sources for his inspiration and bring new material to the western world to create this entertaining tale, of which I am grateful!

I’m putting this one on my list of favorite asian-inspired stories along with Avatar: The Last Airbender, Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days and Alison Goodman’s Eon duology! Glad to hear The Girl with Ghost Eyes is planned to be the first of an on-going series.

Rating: 4 compensation ghosts

Excerpt:

I came back with the supplies. Father’s altar dominated the heart of the large chamber. Colorful silk lanterns hung above it, red, yellow, and blue-green, and the altar was surrounded by bright brocades, candles, idols, and incensea clutter of magnificence. Five different kinds of fresh fruit were displayed nearby, on copper plates. A painting on the wall showed Guan Gong, god of war and literature, holding his bladed polearm in his right hand. Statues of the Five Ghosts hulked nearby. In warlike postures, they glared from behind black beards.
 
I crossed to the corner, to the plain wooden crate I used as my altar. I laid my peachwood sword down beside it. Tom Wong and Mr. Liu stood quietly while I lit the lotus-shaped oil lamp on the altar, refreshed the tea and rice in the offering cups, and swirled the water in the dragon bowl.
 
To make the passport I took a reed brush and wrote Shi Jin’s name in black ink on a sheet of yellow rice paper, distorting the Chinese characters into ghostscript. To the left of the name I drew seven small circles in vermilion ink and connected the circles with lines; the circles represented the seven stars of the Northern Bushel. I wrote the four yin trigrams of the Yi Jing along the bottom, the names of Hell King Yanluo and the Grandfathers at the top. At the lower right corner I stamped my chop, printing the passport with my name and lineage.
 
I lit a match and burned the paper. Fire blackened the passport. Transmuted it into spirit. As the ashes crumbled, the passport took shape in the world of spirits and drifted to the floor.
 
“Is that all?” Tom Wong asked.
 
“Not yet,” I said, turning to him. I tied a red string to my wrist, feeling the silken cord tighten against my skin. “The soul passport has been sent to the spirit world, but there are no messengers in the lands between. I need to enter a trance and deliver it to Shi Jin by hand.”
 
“Is it dangerous?”
 
“The spirit world is full of dangers,” I said. “But my peachwood sword will protect me, and a red string will guide me back to myself. You’ll keep my body safe while I’m in the spirit world, Tom?”
 
He nodded, and his eyes were filled with encouragement.
 
Ghosts and goblins prowl the spirit world, and I would not be foolish enough to travel there defenseless. I took a grease pencil and wrote a spell on my peachwood sword, then replaced the sword at my belt. It would cross with me when I entered the world of spirit.
 
Then I began. Clicking my teeth, I closed my eyes and thought of the sun and the moon. I felt sunlight stream in through the place between my eyebrows, and moonlight through the soles of my feet. I let them radiate within me. Once my skin was filled with shining, I began to dance.
 
The Pace of Yu would allow me to wander the three realms. I stamped the floor hard with one foot, and dragged the other. I danced the broken, halting steps of Yu the Great, who beat back the floods. Singing, stamping, and dragging, I danced as Yu, who could transform himself into a bear, yet walked with a a limp. Yu, the king, the sorcerer, nearly a god, who slew the beast with nine heads. His power cascading through me, I danced the same series of limping steps over and over, making intricate magical gestures with my hands.
 
There was no way to tell them when I stopped dancing in my body and began, instead, a dance of spirit, but there it was. I crossed over without knowing it. I stood outside myself, a spirit int he spirit world, inches from my body yet unfathomably far away. The red string was secure around my wrist; it extended through unnatural fog, through impossible angles, back to where my living body stood, swaying, entranced. I had no other anchor.
 
In spirit I had the same form I had in flesh, my hair long and unbound, wearing the yellow cloth robe of a Daoshi. I had the same skills, abilities, limitations, in spirit as in body. Even my peachwood sword was at my belt, thanks to the spell written on the side. I crossed the room and picked up the spirit passport. It would guide me to Shi Jin. He’d been sending dreams to Mr. Liu, so he couldn’t be far. Probably within half a mile.
 
I let the passport lead me. It pulsed in my right hand, drawing me toward the man whose name was written on it. I went out through the temple door and peered into the night, where the passport drew me. Wind was blowing from the lands of the dead.

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11 comments

  1. Jenny – this one definitely has something new to offer to even asian inspired fantasy. The author studied Chinese religion and learned to speak Mandarin so he could interview people and get first hand stories for inspiration which is so awesome! You get a feeling that he’s comfortable blending the fantastic with the historical. I was entertained by the world and very impressed!

  2. Nish – Yeah, there’s not a lot of asian-inspired fantasy out there but it looks like there might be more in the future! This one will definitely give you a good feel for it 🙂

  3. Mogsy – Haha, I think it was Tammy and Lynn’s reviews of the book that finally convinced me to try this one. Reading it made just a *little* nostalgic for a good ol’ fashioned kung fu movie, too!

  4. All you had to say was “demons, Chinese sorcery, and kung-fu” and I was sold XD This is actually only the 3rd review I’ve read for this book, but all three have very high praise! And Tammy – which was where I first heard of this book – name it as one of her tops read of the year! So yeah, think I may have to seriously consider picking this one up.

  5. DJ – Read it read it!! Yeah, there are some awesome kung-fu battle scenes in this one and lots of bizarre and adorable creatures/demons. I was pleasantly surprised!

  6. Anya – Yes, yes, do try this one, it’s quite fantastic 🙂 And I survived the holidays and am now hoping to survive this month, started off well with a cold 😛

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