dorothean: detail of painting of Gandalf, Frodo, and Gimli at the Gates of Moria, trying to figure out how to open them (Default)
[personal profile] dorothean posting in [community profile] 50books_poc
[I'm so sorry for not posting on here more! I haven't been reading as much this year, but I have read other books that qualify, and I hope I can manage to catch up.]

Seventeen-year-old Li Lan has barely begun to think about her future when her father unthinkingly passes along a rather insulting request he's received from the powerful Lim family: will Li Lan marry their recently-deceased son?

Of course not. Li Lan doesn't want to be an instant widow; her father says it's superstition. Nevertheless, she soon finds herself caught up in the old and new entanglements between her family and the Lims, which exist not only in waking life, but in her dreams, and in death. And though she's uncertain of her own strengths and ignorant of the workings of all of these worlds, the actions she takes to protect herself thrust her deeper into a complex supernatural conspiracy.

What I loved most about this book was the worldbuilding. In the first few chapters Li Lan fills us in quickly (though maybe a bit heavy-handedly) on Malaysia (then Malaya) in 1895, especially on life for a privileged-but-secluded young woman in the Chinese merchants' section of Malacca. This is, I suppose, the part for the US-based reviewers who will inevitably go on about how they can smell the spices. But while they strain across time and space to savor an exotic reality, Yangsze Choo drives in another dimension of separation. Ghosts, wandering unseen about Malacca, can see and smell the food of the living, for which they still hunger, but can't nourish themselves by it unless it is dedicated specially to them. In the Plains of the Dead, those not yet called to judgment subsist on the offerings their living families have made for them, but even those made wealthy by observant children find that feasts of folded and burnt paper are difficult to enjoy.

We follow Li Lan through these places and states of being, as she experiences what it is to be standing in one's home unnoticed by one's family, to relate differently to solid substances like walls or one's own body, to enter into a loved one's dream and speak to him and even there fail to grasp or utter the truth. Physical laws apply differently; human relationships are as difficult to secure, understand, and escape as ever. And then there are the bureaucratic regulations of the afterlife, comfortably familiar for those who in life understood political influence -- up to a point.

The Ghost Bride sounds like a love story, but it's not what one might imagine at the beginning. The ghost whose bride Li Lan is asked to become is a horrible person, in no way suited for a romance except as a villain. Seeking escape from his attentions forces Li Lan into the world of ghosts -- so perhaps 'ghost' in the title is really an adjective, modifying bride. And Li Lan is very much a bride in some ways -- innocent, romantic, alternately strengthened and threatened by all sorts of mother figures, on the verge of sexual awakening, young and ignorant of much of the world yet willing to promise her entire life. (And a rather large part of her self-discovery has to do with finding out how beautiful she is -- which is excellent for brides in particular; the rest of us might want something else too.) But she's a bride without a groom. This novel is not a conventional romance in which the hero complements the heroine's role at every pass; it has more in common with the love triangle that's been so popular lately, which allows the heroine to carry on her own story with the conflicting support and attention of two love interests, between whom she doesn't have to decide -- at least not for a long time. Li Lan does choose -- or anyway (skip spoiler)

at the end she says she's chosen, but she hasn't yet acted on her choice. I like this because I'd advise her to choose the other one, which I think worked out well for Aerin in The Hero and the Crown. Dear Li Lan, you have no idea how much is left for you to learn; those years you're rejecting will make everything you want now riper and more delicious.

But I think of the love story (stories really) not as the story of The Ghost Bride, but rather one of the forces urging Li Lan along her own story. She dives in clinging onto the shining threads of certain loves (not only romantic love); she tumbles through the labyrinth of the underworld; and the threads that pull her out at any rate look different.
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