“Maoshan isn’t like other traditions. We are ghost hunters, spirit mediums, and exorcists. When creatures out of nightmare trouble Chinatown, people come to the Maoshan for protection. With paper talismans we drive away the spirits, with magic gourds we imprison them, with peachwood swords we destroy them. People fear those who live at the border of the spirit world. They say a hold of death taints us. They might be right.”
This book was everything I didn’t know I wanted; a proper little gem picked up on a whim just because the literary Gods smiled upon me one evening. I did not expect to get so into it, but when your protagonist is a martial arts expert with astral projection abilities who can see into the depths of the supernatural underworld of 19th century Chinatown in San Francisco…I don’t believe it’s possible to go wrong.
Xian Li-Lin is a Daoshi priestess; it is her job to exorcise spirits from the streets of Chinatown. She has strong martial arts skills and is gifted with her peachwood sword, she writes spells and burns paper talismans and all around rocks as a protagonist. But she is also cursed with yin-eyes: the ability to see supernatural beings even when she isn’t in the spirit world, and for some reason this brings shame upon her family.
It’s a damn pity too because Li-Lin is pretty badass. Okay she gets conned into entering the spirit work to help a malevolent ghost in the first chapter, but she bloody well sorts herself out. Narrowly avoiding possession, she makes good use of her magic and martial arts skills, navigating her way through the spirit world on the run from her ghostly pursuer. All the while planning revenge on those who tricked her.
“First I needed to defeat Shi Jin and recover the red string. Once I’d done that, I’d return to my body, find Mr. Liu, and make him pay. He had cut my skin. It was a violation, and he was going to suffer for it.”
The world-building in this book was out of this world – quite literally. I think it was the best part and I found it so incredibly inspiring. Based on Chinese folklore, it features a whole bunch of spooky and weird spirits, which are incredibly cool to read about. Li-Lin’s magic and religion is based on Taoism and it was ever so cool to read about the practices.
“Mr. Liu was a man of power. He’d broken the spell on my peachwood sword. I could haunt him from the spirit world – move objects around, possess people – but he was a Daoshi, of the third ordination or higher. If I approached him in spirit form, he could drive me away with an octagonal mirror, trap me in a bottleneck gourd, or burn a paper talisman and incinerate me.”
I was sucked up into the world, pretty much just wishing for an encyclopaedia just about this fictional world that I could devour much as I devoured the novel. But of course there was a plot to read about, too. And though it paled in comparison to the world building, it wasn’t half bad. It focused on Li-Lin’s status as a young immigrant widow with yin-eyes, her relationships with her father and the spirits she encounters, her desire to seek revenge on the con artist that violated her, and hopefully bring a bit of honour to her family. I liked the highly personal aspects of the plot. In the end it got a bit “save-the-world”-y, which I liked less, but I had to admit it was a fitting ending.
Plot-wise I think I had more interest in Li-Lin’s complex relationship with her father. Though he risked and sacrificed an awful lot for her, Li-Lin often feels like there is no love from her father, and he only sees her as an instrument to further his reputation, or at least keep it intact. Li-Lin’s dad is one of the biggest mysteries in her life, but she begins to learn more about him (despite his best efforts). Why has he risked so much for her if he didn’t love her? But why won’t he show ay affection towards her, or talk to her about anything other than her priestess duties or martial arts? What is the deal, magical kung-fu daddio?
I did love the father sub-plot. The story they share is bittersweet but it was genuinely heartwarming, and just another layer of awesome storytelling in a novel that already pretty much has it all.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes really is expertly written. It’s a very different kind of urban fantasy, such unique and real folklore makes it a fascinating read. Even the way the dialogue is written makes it feel like you’re reading a the subtitles in a martial arts film, really adding to the Chinatown atmosphere that gets created in your mind. It’s got characters I cared about, with interesting journeys and depths to their personalities. The plot was fast-paced and unpredictable, the magic was new and special, the entire thing was an absolute pleasure to read. It inspired me. It got me looking up Chinese folklore and spiritual beliefs. It got me writing down an interesting turn of phrase or two, and it has definitely made me keep an eye out for any future books from M.H. Boroson.