The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo

NOTE: The book lists family names before personal names, and I have followed suit.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I’ve been all over the place with my review backlog project, but the good news is that it’s given me an excuse to reread all my favorite books. Looking back, I honestly have no idea how I first learned about The Ghost Bride. I suspect that I read it in preparation for The Night Tiger out of concern for spoilers – an overabundance of caution, as it now turns out, though I’m not sure where I got the idea that The Night Tiger would spoil The Ghost Bride. (Must have read it somewhere.) 2019 is a blur at this point. All I know for sure is that I picked up this book and I loved it, and then I read The Night Tiger a month later, and long story short Yangsze Choo is now on my auto-buy authors list.

The Ghost Bride is set in 1893 Malaya (modern day Malaysia). Born and raised in the bustling port city of Malacca, Li Lan is the last surviving child of the Pans, a formerly wealthy Straits-born Chinese family. Her mother and grandfather were killed years ago by the smallpox that swept through their house, and, though she and her father survived, her father is now permanently disfigured and addicted to opium. Over the last several years their business has slipped through his fingers, leaving the two remaining Pans deeply in debt – mostly to the powerful Lim family, whose patriarch has openly and somewhat offensively asked to wed Li Lan to the ghost of his deceased son – and struggling to make ends meet, helped by their three remaining servants: Amah, Li Lan’s elderly nurse and the closest thing she has to a mother; Old Wong, the cook, who can talk to ghosts; and Ah Chun, the very superstitious and easily startled maid. As an added difficulty, Li Lan’s father prefers his books and his pipe to human interaction. Though he is an affectionate father, he has little idea of how to raise a daughter, and has encouraged Li Lan in more scholarly pursuits that don’t actually benefit her in any practical way.

All of this means that Li Lan has grown up more or less in isolation from other well-to-do Chinese families, and, at seventeen, she has very few options and doesn’t really know how to socialize because her father never troubled himself to introduce her to polite society. She gets a brief spark of hope when she meets the handsome Lim Tian Bai, heir to Lim Teck Kiong, but even this is taken away from her when she learns that her childhood engagement to Tian Bai was canceled in favor of a wealthier girl from the Quah family. Her options somehow grow even worse when she begins to receive nightly visitations from Lim Tian Ching, a ghost with a grudge and a complete inability to take “no” for an answer. As a human, Lim Tian Ching was the dreadfully spoiled only son of Lim Teck Kiong, coddled by his mother but resented by his cousin, Tian Bai, and his older half-sister, Yan Hong. As a ghost, he is both repulsive and unswervingly convinced that Tian Bai murdered him in order to become the heir to the Lim family business and fortune. In the couple of months since his death, he has made it his mission to bring Tian Bai down from the afterlife while also pursuing a ghost marriage with Li Lan, with whom he became obsessed after seeing her, from a distance, exactly once. (I’m sorry if that sounded a bit judgy, but I have had it with this dude.) Though Li Lan could not be clearer in her rejection, Lim Tian Ching isn’t the sharpest chopstick in the drawer, and he does his best to woo her, but his hideous efforts backfire when she accidentally overdoses on an opium cocktail and wakes up the next morning in the afterlife.

Following her disastrous disembodiment, Li Lan spends some time drifting around Malacca in spirit form, able to eavesdrop on anyone but unable to make her presence felt. Old Wong helps her a bit, but, though she is not dead, no one else can see her or hear her. To make matters worse, Lim Tian Ching is aware that she has left her body, and he has tasked a unit of ox-headed demons with finding her spirit and bringing her to him; and, though she wants to think better of him, she is unable to shake the idea that Tian Bai may have murdered his own cousin. After some desultory wandering, she finally bumps into Er Lang, a man who claims to be a minor government official from the world of the afterlife, and he offers to help her return to her body in exchange for her assistance in his current investigation into corruption and possible insurrection within the Courts of Hell. With no better options, Li Lan takes his deal and makes her way deeper into the afterlife with the reluctant help of Liew Fan, a conniving ghost who has been haunting her still-living lover for the last several decades.

The journey takes Li Lan from the streets of Malacca to the Plains of the Dead, the Limbo-like world in which the newly dead spend the first part of their deaths before starting the reincarnation process, and then on to the mansion of the deceased Lims. Posing as kitchen girl number six, she finds evidence implicating the Sixth Judge of the Courts of Hell, and even briefly reunites with the ghost of her mother before she and Er Lang are forced to flee the Lim mansion. Though Er Lang reveals himself as a loong – a legendary dragon from Chinese mythology – his powers are relatively ineffective in the Plains of the Dead, particularly when he is separated from his physical body, and he seemingly sacrifices himself to allow Li Lan to escape. This leaves Li Lan alone with only Fan for company, which turns out to be a rather sucky trade when Fan deliberately leads Li Lan through the wrong door and leaves her stranded in the jungle surrounding Malacca. Returning home a week later, Li Lan arrives to find that Fan has taken over her body and her life, and that she – Li Lan – is now reduced to the status of a hungry ghost, homeless and dispossessed. She is on the verge of disappearing forever when Er Lang returns, reunited with his own body and bursting with rude good health. Despite his overpowering need to troll her in every way possible, he shares some of his life force with her, and she goes back to her house in time to see Fan get exorcised by Amah and carried off by one of the ox-headed demons.

With Fan gone and Lim Tian Ching under arrest in the afterlife, Li Lan returns to her body and tries to resume her life, but is unable to settle down. Though she once dreamed of their marriage, she is now uncomfortable with Tian Bai, as much from his possible murder of Lim Tian Ching as from the fact that he seems incapable of distinguishing her from Fan. She is also suspicious of Yan Hong, who she suspects is involved with the murder, and haunted by thoughts of Er Lang. After a violent encounter with Lim Tian Ching’s bereaved mother, Er Lang returns yet again, but with a twist: this time he proposes marriage (right after Li Lan was almost murdered – his sense of timing, as always, is exact) and also reveals that, because he shared his life force with her, Li Lan will live to see all of the coming century. Li Lan is initially unsure of her path, but makes up her mind when Yan Hong admits that she accidentally killed Lim Tian Ching with an overdose of a stimulant that turned out to be fatal. The story ends – or begins – with her decision to step out of Tian Bai’s family and into Er Lang’s.

This book was billed to me as Spirited Away for adults, and whoever said that was not wrong. I don’t entirely like Li Lan’s interactions with Er Lang, who displays an amiable chauvinism even at his best, but I have to admit that the vibes are perfect. Choo’s inventions integrate beautifully with the mythology upon which she draws, creating a seamless world in which hell is a bureaucracy – because of course it is – and things like the Plains of the Dead just make sense. Even if the setting is just loose enough to give me the sense that I wouldn’t find anything deeper if I really pushed at the boundaries of this world, it is augmented by the richness of the folklore and the general culture. I don’t feel the need to push for more: everything fits together nicely, and it is enough. Much of Li Lan’s world is comforting to me, particularly the food. The characters are familiar and relatable, and I love them for it. As the daughter of two intensely superstitious cultures, I was never confused by anything Amah or Old Wong did or said, even if I was occasionally aggravated by it. But that, too, is a familiar feeling.

I will say that I am absolutely not sold on Tian Bai’s apparent unfamiliarity with Li Lan, which – as a triangle-busting device – feels just a little too much like Choo needed to make him problematic in some way, which would then allow Li Lan to choose Er Lang without guilt. I’m actually glad I put off this review for as long as I did, because this didn’t stand out to me the first couple of times I read the book. After three reads, though, I’m not buying Tian Bai’s sudden descent into Cinderella Syndrome. I accept that he can’t tell the difference between Fan’s personality and Li Lan’s because that is in fact what happens, but I don’t believe it. He falls for Li Lan specifically because she is different from the other upper-class girls in his society. Don’t try to tell me that if you handed him a glass slipper he would put it on Fan’s foot instead. While it is true that he is not superstitious in the way that Amah is, he still should have recognized that Li Lan was substantially different when she woke up from her coma, and he should have recognized that she changed again a week or so later. Of course, the me who just reread this book – who is also the me who is still not over Heart of the Sun Warrior – low-key wishes that Tian Bai and Er Lang had met face to face just once. I don’t care if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Gimme all the wonderful petty squabbles I got from HotSW, because I am out of control.

I am also slightly irritated with Li Lan, but my irritation was based on the assumption that she was actually twenty-two, and I now have no idea how that got into my head when she is clearly stated to be seventeen in the beginning. I can’t blame her quite as much for being an awkward, naive teenager, rather than the awkward, naive adult I originally thought she was. The thing is, this really has to do with my rage against Fan, who in my opinion fully deserves what she gets. Every time I read this book I want to shove Fan’s head into a bathtub and hold her there until she drowns all over again, but I also want to kick Li Lan, who knows that Fan is untrustworthy but somehow doesn’t think twice about giving away sensitive information, such as the existence of her unoccupied body. And yet even knowing what Fan and Lim Tian Ching have done to her, Li Lan still pities them both, and that drives me bananas. I will admit that I am not a kind person and this sort of thing makes no sense to me just as a general rule of thumb – there is a reason I always land in Slytherin – but I am so fed up with people who claim that their female characters are strong and smart while in the same breath endowing them with a self-destructive level of compassion. Her pity for these two objectively awful people was definitely a choice, and it wasn’t a good one. Normalize knowing when people deserve to be punished. I do not like the idea of a teenaged girl mourning her stalker. Even if he never assaults her, he abuses her in other ways, and her sympathy for him at the end gives me such an icky feeling that it is almost enough to taint my overall impression of the book. For a character who is resourceful, feisty, and fed up with Er Lang’s crap, this really is not the best look.

Ultimately, of course, Li Lan is not in charge of the world, which is fortunate because Fan and Lim Tian Ching do get carted off to the Courts of Hell, and the book does end with the understanding that they will both be thoroughly punished. I am almost afraid to ask if Li Lan would have let them go, if she had been offered the option. I don’t want to know. And yet, with all that being said, I still keep coming back to her story, which remains as entrancing, addicting, and hangover-making as it was the first time I read it. There is a very brief mention of Li Lan in The Night Tiger, which is set in the same world about forty years in the future, and I am quietly hoping there will be a future book about her adventures in the twentieth and/or twenty-first centuries, a sort of Chinese folklore-themed Addie LaRue. I would sign up for that in a heartbeat. If the eruption of Krakatau was a real-world consequence of a rebellion in Hell, the way Er Lang says it was, I would dearly love to know what’s going on down there in the present day, and if the chaos engendered by the Chinese Hell extends to the rest of the world, or if it is confined to this specific region. I have a lot of questions, but I am – for once – surprisingly unbothered by this. With or without a sequel, this book remains one of my favorite Asian fantasies, and, even though I just finished it, I already kind of want to read it again.