Mini Reviews: Black Water Sister & The Queens of Innis LearBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho
Published by Penguin on May 11, 2021
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 384

A finalist for the 2022 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
One of BookPage's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2021

One of Reviewers' Choice Best Books of 2021
One of Book Riot's Best SFF Standalones of 2021

“Ghosts. Gods. Gangsters. Black Water Sister has it all…a wildly entertaining coming-of-age story for the twentysomething set, with a protagonist who is almost painfully relatable at times.”—Vulture

"A twisty, feminist, and enthralling page-turner."—BuzzFeed

"A sharp and bittersweet story of past and future, ghosts and gods and family."—Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

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

  When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies.  As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

When Jessamyn Teoh’s parents decide to move back to Malaysia from the USA, she tags along to help them get settled in. 

When Jessamyn Teoh’s parents decide to move back to Malaysia from the USA, she tags along to help them get settled in. Since graduating from Harvard, Jess has been feeling somewhat adrift – and there’s a nagging voice in her head asking if she’s been indulging in too much self-sabotage. But existential problems quickly take a backseat when Jess starts hearing an actual voice in her head – the voice of her dead grandmother. 

It turns out that there’s a lot more to the family history than Jess ever knew, including religion, spiritual mediums, and even organized crime. With her grandmother’s spirit hellbent on revenge, Jess becomes a reluctant spirit medium and gets tangled up with a powerful local god known only as the Black Water Sister. 

I really enjoyed learning a little about Malaysian Chinese culture through Jess’s eyes. A first-generation American, a closeted lesbian, and an agnostic with a poor grasp of the Hokkien language, Jess may look the part but she’s not exactly an insider. Too “other” for most Americans and too American for most Malaysians, Jess grapples with some big questions about who she is and where she belongs. Being the magical, spiritual lackey for a wayward god seems pretty straightforward by comparison.

Through Jessamyn’s narration, Zen Cho brings biting humor, wry observation, and thoughtful reflection to Black Water Sister. The plot moves along at a brisk pace and still Cho manages to incorporate difficult, important topics like racism, homophobia, exploitation, and sexual assault with sensitivity and realism. Few urban fantasies have had me feeling both entertained and unexpectedly pensive, and I’m reminded again why it is that I like Zen Cho’s work so much. 


Mini Reviews: Black Water Sister & The Queens of Innis LearThe Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
Published by Tom Doherty Associates on March 27, 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 576

Dynasties battle for the crown in Tessa Gratton's debut adult epic fantasy, The Queens of Innis Lear.

Three Queens. One crown. All out war.

Gaela. Ruthless Commander.
I am the rightful heir of Innis Lear. No more will I wait in the shadows and watch my mother’s murderer bleed my island dry.

The King’s hold on the crown must end—willingly or at the edge of my sword.

Regan. Master Manipulator.
To secure my place on the throne, I must produce an heir. Countless times I have fed the island’s forests my blood. Yet, my ambition is cursed.

No matter what or whom I must destroy, I will wield the magic of Innis Lear.

Elia. Star-blessed Priest.
My sisters hide in the shadows like serpents, waiting to strike our ailing king. I must protect my father, even if it means marrying a stranger.

We all have to make sacrifices. Love and freedom will be mine.

"Amazing. Just Amazing."--Robin McKinley

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Tessa Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear is an impressive retelling, managing to closely follow the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear while offering something completely unique. 

Innis Lear is a beautiful and brutal land, a place with a deep-rooted culture of elemental magic. The arrogant and proud King Lear spurns the magic of the earth and rootwells, finding it “low” and vulgar. Under his reign, the only tradition that can be openly practiced is the reading of star prophecies. But the people and the land itself must have the magic of the earth, the rootwells, and the stars to survive. 

But the princesses of Innis Lear may not embrace these traditions wholeheartedly. Gaela, Regan, and Elia each have their own reason to love or hate the magics of their land. With their own ambitions and desires, each woman struggles under the yoke of the star prophecies that supposedly foretell their fate. Gaela, a respected military commander who rejects all things feminine; Regan, a cunning and manipulative consort who’s desperate to become a mother; and Elia, a star-priest in training who knows nothing but obedience to her father. 

These characters captured my heart – and broke it. Gratton made me care about each of her characters (and there are many), so the inevitable consequences of their poor decisions hit hard. I expected a dark story since the source material is a tragedy, but my heart was not prepared. One character’s struggles with infertility and miscarriage were particularly gut-wrenching.

This story is concerned with destiny and inheritance in a way that almost echoes the debates are nature versus nurture. Are Gaela, Regan, and Elia fit for the crown? And if they are not, is it because of their stars…or their choices? No easy answers are provided by the text, but I did find Gratton’s conclusion much more satisfying than the original story. Take that, Shakespeare.

Highly recommended.