My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this lovely cross-genre debut, Yangsze Choo creates a haunting world of her own between paranormal YA, historical, and multicultural fiction. If I hadn’t discovered the book through a recommendation, I would have eventually found it on the Indie Next list, among the Goodreads Choice Award finalists, with B&N’s Discover Great New Writers picks . . . In short, it’s everywhere, and there couldn’t be a more deserving novel.
Teenager Li Lan is presented with an usual marriage proposal: to wed Lim Tian Ching, a dead man. It’s 19th-century Malaysia, on the rocky fault line between superstition and science, and Li Lan is much more interested in her suitor’s handsome (and alive) cousin, Tian Bai. Both young men are from a wealthy family to whom Li Lan’s father owes a debt, and when Lim Tian Ching’s ghost starts to invade Li Lan’s dreams, accusing Tian Bai of murdering him, her fate seems increasingly bound to his family’s. She tries fending the ghost off with spirit remedies, but overdoses and winds up with one foot in the world of the living and one in the Plains of the Dead. Driven to find her own deceased mother and understand the true circumstances of Lim Tian’s Ching’s death, Li Lan finds herself allied to a powerful creature of the underworld–and soon, deciding between loyalty to her family’s traditions and an uncharted future full of magic and adventure.
The writing really excels. Like all good magical realism, the Plains of the Dead and its otherworldly atmosphere are at once totally inventive and utterly tangible, from its corrupt bureaucracy, to its strange colors and textures, to the faceless paper servants that populate its cities. I found myself invested in the debts, obsessions, and agendas of the spirits that surround Li Lan, and really, this is why I read: to be so convinced that the impossible exists that I’m opening a book in the grocery store line, in bed at 1 a.m., or while riding my bike (on the trainer; safety first).
This was a fast, satisfying story, with an atmosphere that ends up being the most impressive aspect of an already formidable debut. I can’t wait to read what follows.