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Award worthy fiction

Spirits Abroad

By Zen Cho 

31 Mar, 2015

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Zen Cho, a Malaysian author living in London, is familiar from the late, lamented World SF blog, the 2013 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2015 IAFA William L. Crawford Fantasy Award (a literary award given to a writer whose first fantasy book was published during the preceding 18 months) but I do not think I had actually read anything of hers before I started the work under review [1], Cho’s 2014 collection Spirits Abroad. Not to leave you in suspense or anything, I liked it a lot and hope to read more of Cho’s work.

But first, a word about the book as an artifact! This is an ebook with a link to some author’s notes at the end of each story. These links worked just fine on my smartphone, but not so well when I transferred the book to my Kobo. I’m not sure what the issue might be, but it didn’t really affect me personally. I am as inflexible about how I read collections as I am about how I eat food [2]: front to back, none of this zooming off to read notes before I get to that part of the book. I understand some of you young people do it differently. Well, you can just get off my lawn. 

The stories are arranged into four sections: HERE, THERE, ELSEWHERE, and GOING BACK.


The First Witch of Damansara”

Vivian returns home to Malaysia for her witchy grandmother Nai Nai’s funeral. She discovers that death has by no means slowed the old lady down or interfered with Nai Nai’s ability to provide her westernized granddaughter with unsolicited advice.

Cho writes in Malaysian English (and if you’re expecting the author to provide a lexicon for unfamiliar words in the notes, tough luck). However, the situation, a dead ancestor’s unexpected resurrection, is pretty universal; I think we’ve all had grandparents come back to life unexpectedly [3].

First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia”

A chaotic conference on the rights of minorities is further disrupted by the appearance (or perhaps I should say arrival) of an invisible man and memories of an old romance.

The House of Aunts”

A schoolgirl romance is complicated by well-meaning interfering aunts and also by the fact that the schoolgirl and all of her aunts are undead flesh-eating spirits of vengeance.


One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland”

Being sent off to dampest Britain for schooling is stressful enough but as Hui Ann discovers, that is nothing compared to being trapped in the school as an army of angry, savage fairies converges on it.

The teachers in this story abandon the kids to their fates, which is bad enough, but they also leave a note with survival hints, which suggests that the teachers have run into this kind of thing before and didn’t think to warn anyone about it.

起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows)”

Jia Qi and her Lion Dance Troupe, hired to deal with an unwanted ghost, struggle with the fact that their employer is nowhere near as sympathetic as the little boy whose ghost their symbolic lion is supposed to eat.

These stories are for the most part light comedies, as is this one. However, they also hint at facts about spiritual matters — in particular, that when the troupe‘s lion eats ghosts, it’s not freeing the ghosts, just consuming and annihilating them — that are a bit disquieting.

七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)”

How Boris learned to stop fearing ghosts and demons and love lion dancing.

This is backstory of a sort to the previous story, although by the time Jia Qi comes along, Boris has retired from lion dancing.

The Mystery of the Suet Swain”

Sham tries to help her best friend Belinda with a suitor, or more accurately, an obsessive stalker. All stalkers are bad but this particular one is worse than most.

She is the sixteenth most beautiful girl I ever saw.”
And what happened to the first fifteen most beautiful girls?” said Sham.
Bullet smiled. […]
I found them,” he said. 

What I learn from stories like this is that monsters should be wary of sensible young women. Very wary. Sham could give Susan Sto Helit pointers.

Prudence and the Dragon”

Prudence Ong, another one of Cho’s grumpily sensible young women, is accosted in a British pub by Zheng Yi, who is charming, good looking. and also a dragon. Dragons have at best a shaky grasp of human propriety and this particular example is a bit slow on the pickup. He ignores Prudence’s impatience with his flamboyantly romantic gestures (or as Prudence helpfully points out, stalking”).

The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life”

A story about Prudence Ong’s best friend Angela. She was once Pik Mun, but has rebranded herself as Angela. Her old identity returns to literally haunt her. The experience forces Angela to come to terms with an aspect of herself that didn’t vanish just because she changed her name and presentation.


The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote”

An earth spirit whose situation is already complicated finds its efforts to make a new home for itself confounded by an inexplicably uncooperative forest spirit.

The more fantasy I read, the more I think there is an unfilled but viable niche for paranormal relationship counselors. 


Circumstances force a family into a bold but tragic act.

The Four Generations of Chang E”

An immigrant’s experience, recast in traditional mythology.

Also fairly tragic or at least melancholy. Not all of these stories are comedies.


The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat”

Based on a historical figure,Hang Jebat seems doomed to an unfortunate fate at the hands of his best friend, regardless of the genre in which the story is recast. But … the situation is not entirely without hope.

The Fish Bowl”

Fear of public failure leads a young woman to make a series of painful bargains with a fell creature. As the stakes of potential failure rise, so does the cost of each bargain.

Balik Kampung”

A dead woman’s long journey from hell into the world of the living inexorably leads her towards a truth she very much wants to forget: the reason why she became a Hungry Ghost.

Excerpt from The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo:

Among my many irrational habits is an insistence that I read either all of something or none of it. I skipped this preview, or at least tried to. I did see a couple of words so … I will be asking for a review copy of the novel.


Author’s Commentary

That should really be commentaries.” one for each story. I am not going to review each commentary because, wow, how obsessive would that be, but they are the good kind of commentary, the sort that adds extra layers to each work.


I had no idea what to expect from this book, although in retrospect my expectations should have been heightened by the fact the author is a Campbell nominee. While I believe there may have been cultural nuances to these stories that I missed, I enjoyed this collection. Note the lack of my usual on the whole” or aside from” sort of qualifiers. Many of the stories in this collection are quite funny; some of them hit other notes. Cho has mastered a broad range of tone, a mastery put to good use.

Spirits Abroad can be purchased here

1: I am sure I would have encountered, and enjoyed, Cho’s work if I had found the time to read my copy of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, where I would have encountered Cho’s The Four Generations of Chang E.” The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women has been in my TBR pile since November 2014.

2: Hoping that this is not TMI: I usually start with the least-liked food on my plate and eat onwards until I get to the most-liked. The first time I ate at the exgf’s parents’ place, they were unaware of this quirk and assumed that I was eating the food in that order because I really really liked the first kind of food consumed. They would replenish my supply each time I managed to finish it and since I was too polite to explain why I was eating the food in the order I was, this went on for some time.

3: Strachan, Phillip Joseph 1894 – 194something and then 1977 – 1987. It’s a long story; I will just say that there’s a reason we cremate.