Zen Cho’s 2021 Black Water Sister is a standalone modern fantasy.
In a bid to rebuild their lives and escape massive medical debts in the US, Jessamyn Teoh’s parents return to Penang. Jessamyn accompanies them to Malaysia, a nation she has not seen since she was a toddler. This means parting from her girlfriend Sharanya, at least for a time. Not that her parents are aware of the sacrifice. Being gay is just one of a number of subjects Jessamyn hesitates to mention to her conservative parents.
Not can she even hint at her troubled relationship with her estranged grandmother. Her dead grandmother.
At first Jessamyn was conscious of Ah Ma only as a hectoring voice in her head. It wasn’t until the family returned to Malaysia that the penny dropped; Jessamyn realized she was being haunted by her dead grandmother. Why Jessamyn? Ah Ma has unfinished business and Jessamyn is a medium, an ability of which Jessamyn was unaware until granny moved into her head.
Ah Ma is infuriated that Dato’ Ng Chee Hin — the fifth wealthiest man in the nation — and his consortium have plans to build a condominium complex on the site of an old temple. (It happens to be the temple that her uncle serves as a medium1. That’s a surprise; Jessamyn had no idea he was a medium.) The temple has fought a long legal battle against the project, but land is short in Penang, there are lots of temples, and anyone not blinded by optimism can see how this game will play out.
Having the shade of one’s angry granny urging one into conflict with the fifth richest man in the nation is bad enough. As it turns out, Ah Ma has not been entirely forthcoming about the situation. For example, at no point did Ah Ma mention having been something of a hardened gangster. Nor did she mention the extremely scary god — Black Water Sister — that calls the temple home. Nor did Ah Ma mention the real cause of her dislike of Ng Chee Hin. Also unmentioned: that Ah Ma had bound herself to the Black Water Sister in exchange for the god’s favour.
Perhaps if Jessamyn had been better informed, she would not have found herself in a position to infuriate both a vindictive billionaire and a vengeful god.
I had assumed that the US medical-debt enforcement squads had global reach. Simply running halfway around the planet wouldn’t hide one from their avaricious clutches. It seems I was wrong. My US readers may find this a helpful hint. It’s one alternative to going full Breaking Bad . Or it would be if international travel were a thing just now.
Malaysia seems to be a land of opportunity for quick-witted young people who happen to be a little light on ethical ballast. Ng Chee Hin worked his way up from rubber harvesting foreman to billionaire; Ah Ma came from even humbler origins to become the bloody right hand of a god. Not that this made her rich, in the grand tradition of women being dealt a bum hand, Ah Ma never made that much money. Respect? Only the sort that comes from fear. Love? Her career destroyed her relationship with her daughter, Jessamyn’s mother.
One might hope her experiences would give Ah Ma a certain amount of empathy for other people but alas, she’s mostly interested in using her granddaughter for one last jab at her old foe Ng Chee Hin. This quest is low risk for Ah Ma — it is not as if Ng Chee Hin could kill her any deader — but the stakes are high for Jessamyn, whose Harvard degree does not make her adept at dealing with homicidal gangsters or soul-eating gods.
Jessamyn’s return to Malaysia is a fast-paced, well written adventure, setting one naïve young woman against a host of challenges, some of whom would be happy to kill her, while others would prefer to eat her soul. Interestingly in this age of series, this novel is not just self-contained in the sense of having a complete plot — it also doesn’t seem to have been written to facilitate sequels. There’s a fine ending, but I’m not going to tell you about it. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
1. The uncle wouldn’t do as an intermediary for his mother because he serves a god. The god doesn’t allow divided allegiances. Every other candidate for Ah Ma’s intermediary (who must be a family member) is either living outside Malaysia or even less suitable than Jessamyn.