Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Macmillan

Published: June 2021

Pages: 384


This mischievous Malaysian-set novel is an adventure featuring family, ghosts and local gods – from Hugo Award winning novelist Zen Cho.


As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans.

Jess soon learns her ‘voice’ belongs to Ah Ma, her late grandmother. She worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. And when a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge. Now she’s decided Jess will help, whether she wants to or not.

As Ah Ma blackmails Jess into compliance, Jess fights to retain control. But her irrepressible relative isn’t going to let a little thing like death stop her, when she can simply borrow Jess’s body to make mischief. As Jess is drawn ever deeper into a world of peril and family secrets, getting a job becomes the least of her worries.

My Thoughts…

CW: this book contains mentions of violence, domestic abuse, death, illness and attempted sexual assault.

This was the first book I read by Zen Cho, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last! Black Water Sister was a blast to read and easily earned its spot as one of my favourite reads in June this year.

Black Water Sister is a perfect blend of original storyline, engaging prose, fascinating lore, and of course “ghosts, gangsters and grandmas” (as the author defined it on Twitter). Now, who can resist a premise like this? Definitely not me… And I’m super glad the book not only met, but really surpassed my expectations.

I loved the characters, especially Ah Ma. This snarky, nagging ghost grandma really stole my heart! I particularly enjoyed Ah Ma’s banter with Jess: they’re both quick and witty and work so well together, definitely pushing each others’ buttons but ultimately pushing one another to be a better version of and true to themselves (you know, as much as ghosts can get better). Jess’s multiple struggles, having to deal with a ghost while coping with “normal” young people’s struggles such as unemployment, family issues and being closeted in a society that’s not really gay-friendly, made her feel incredibly real and were quite touching at times.

The whole cast was really memorable though, and I loved how deliciously complex and morally grey some of them were. From the gangsters to the gods to Jess’ family members, each character brought their own unique personality and history to the game, as well as the painful memories and the past that were haunting them. Of course, some characters were haunted more literally than others, but even so…

A special mention goes to the setting. I can’t recall having read any other books set in Malaysia (at least, not recently), so I was immediately intrigued by that. And the author does an amazing job of bringing the setting to life. I swear at times I almost felt like I could have been there myself the descriptions were so vivid. I also had a lot of fun googling pictures of places and foods mentioned in the book, which is something I often do to help me feel more involved in the setting – plus I get to learn something new! I really liked being thrown in Malaysian culture with Jess as she returns from the US and trying to pick things up and come to grips with local customs.

The author published a really interesting blog article on the challenges of writing about non-Western culture and explaining why she chose to adopt this approach. I really recommend reading this in general if you have the time. I, a white, European reader, personally found it very helpful to help me reflect on existing disparities in expectations when reading books by non-Western writers / set outside of Western countries, something which I’ve probably been guilty of in the past and that I’ll try to keep in mind in the future as well.

The only, minor issue I had with this book was I personally found the pacing to be slightly off at times, with some sections I flew through being really packed and others feeling like they were very slow and dragging a bit by comparison. This is entirely a personal feeling though and may have had something to do with my own tiredness levels rather than the book!

Black Water Sister was a fantastic read, with charming, unforgettable characters, an engaging plot and a vivid setting like I hadn’t seen in a while. Definitely one that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

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