black water sister – zen cho | review

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Published May 11th 2021 by Ace Books
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Contemporary, Fantasy, LGBT
Representation: Malaysian-Chinese cast, Chinese-Indian SC


Rating: 4 out of 5.


A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.


trigger and content warnings:

Fresh out of Harvard, Min/Jess is struggling to find a job. She doesn’t even have the motivation to search and apply for any (which deeply resonates with this unemployed girl 😢). With her father’s poor health, the family decided to return back to Malaysia.

Now that she’s surrounded by nosy Asian aunties and uncles who are conservative and traditional, Jess became more guarded and afraid of coming out to her parents.

Jess thought she was hallucinating when she could suddenly communicate with her Ah Ma who passed away a year ago. Having been raised in the US and her mother’s reluctance in talking about Jess’s grandmother, shocked at hearing a voice in her head would be justified.

Slowly, Jess finds out about the hostility and misunderstandings between her Ah Ma and her mother, and why Ah Ma still remained in the human realm. Jess also connects with her Malaysian family while being haunted by a god who requires a sacrifice.

Ah Ma and Jess’s relationship developed within the dark and twisted plot. I thought it was interesting how separated by generations, the two still managed to connect when they have never really met. Though things might be a little rough, Jess and Ah Ma seemed to have a great time with one another. Ah Ma’s hilariously savage too.

Ask about Ng Chee Hin, said Ah Ma. Ah Ku got all Ds and Es in his exams. He doesn’t understand hidden meanings.

Since my mother is from Malaysia, during the holidays, there would definitely be a trip back to visit my relatives. Through Zen Cho’s words, I could fondly reminisce the times I’ve spent there going to cafes, temples, and the bustling hawker centers. I loved the descriptions of the places and the food. Honestly, would appreciate some kway chap, nasi lemak and charsiu now.

One thing I adored was the family relationships. Being a Malaysian family, it’s actually huge and filled with connections. Temporarily living in her aunt’s place, Jess is exposed to frequent visits from other family members and friends of her Kor Kor.

Zen Cho captured the essence of Malaysia so vividly and detailedly. In this culturally diverse country, the characters don’t speak exceptional English, especially the older generation. There’s always a mixture of Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese with hints of Malay in conversations.

Moreover, Manglish (Malaysian English) such as “lah” and “ah” was frequently used by people in everyday conversations. As a younger generation and having lived in the US for all of her life, Jess’s understanding and speech of Hokkien and Malay is only passable. The blend of languages added personality into Black Water Sister.

Overall, Black Water Sister was a wonderful story about ghostly encounters, misunderstandings that spanned generations, and a young woman trying to find her place in this world. Set in Malaysia, Black Water Sister reflected the culture and atmosphere of the country clearly. It was as if I was back in Malaysia for a holiday. Would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a glimpse of this richly diverse country.

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