I'm very picky about fantasy novels. All of my favorites have some unusual hook or quality that make them stand out from the rest. I knew as soon as I started THE GHOST BRIDE that it was going to be one of these stories. Set in late 19th century Malaysia, it is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Li Lian, who lives with her opium-addled father and her caring nurse. She's about the age to be married, but the man she should marry is now bound to someone else, and the rich Lim family wants to secure her as a "ghost bride" for their departed son.
Li Lian refuses, and that should be the end of it, but soon she starts seeing the dead son, Lim Tian Ching, in her dreams. As his presence becomes increasingly more menacing, Li Lian takes drastic action to escape him which ends up backfiring horribly. Suddenly, she's half here, half in the spirit world, and in her quest to get back to her body, she'll have to venture into the fringes of the Chinese Underworld, learning more than she ever wanted to know about the Lims' sordid history-- and her own.
I freaking loved this book. One of my favorite movies is Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which I rewatched recently, and I loved it for how affirming it is about life, death, and spiritualism. THE GHOST BRIDE is like the Malaysian version of that, only with more depth: there is vengeance from beyond the grave, love and romance that transcends mortal lifetimes, and magic and wonder, as well as the menacing courts of hell in which the departed must pay their dues, Dante's Inferno style, before journeying towards their final stop. It was dark, wondrous, and fascinating.
It helps, of course, that Li Lian is a capable heroine with a lot of agency. She acts seventeen, making the foolish mistakes a seventeen-year-old would. We see her rush to meet her challenges head-on with the brashness of youth, and see her fall in and out of love with the whims of a young woman. It isn't until she ends up in the spiritual in-between that she realizes just how much she has taken her youth-- and her life-- for granted. Even though this isn't young adult, I think it would appeal to a young adult audience because so many of the themes are universal, in my opinion.
I was a bit hesitant to read this at first because I was not quite as fond of THE NIGHT TIGER, which was interesting and rich in history but hard to follow. But this is a very different book from THE NIGHT TIGER, and the narrative is much neater. So if you didn't care for her other work, I would strongly urge you to read this one anyway, as they are very different beasts. I would dearly love to see this as an animated story. I think it would make an amazing movie and I hope some enterprising film agent buys up the rights because this is such a great story, and it deserves to be on the big screen.
P.S. At least one of those stars is for Er Lang. I'd tell you more, but I don't want to drag on.
5 out of 5 stars