The Ghost Bride
by Yangsze Choo
384pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.78/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.73/5

Yangsze Choo’s debut novel, The Ghost Bride, garnered much acclaim after its 2013 release: it was a finalist for several awards including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, Shirley Jackson Award for Novel, Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy, and CILIP Carnegie Medal, plus it was a New York Times bestseller and an Book of the Week. The Ghost Bride is indeed a wonderful novel, especially impressive as a first novel, and it particularly excels at bringing to life both the historical setting of Malaya in 1893 and the Chinese afterlife.

As Pan Li Lan’s eighteenth birthday approaches, her father receives her first marriage offer. The Lim family, one of the most prosperous households in the town of Malacca, would like her to marry their only son, Lim Tian Ching, but there’s a rather large drawback to this arrangement: the proposed bridegroom died a few months ago.

Ghost marriage is a rare occurrence, especially in a case such as this one—Li Lan does not even remember so much as seeing Lim Tian Ching during his short life, though she probably attended the same festivals as he a couple of times—and her father only mentions this option to her because she’d be well provided for if she joined the Lim family. Though once wealthy themselves, the Pan’s fortune has steadily dwindled since Li Lan’s father became a recluse following the death of her mother when Li Lan was just a small child. Despite their financial circumstances, Li Lan is not at all interested in accepting this proposal, yet the Lim family does invite her to their estate where she meets and is drawn to the new family heir, a nephew named Tian Bai.

Shortly after Li Lan begins visiting the Lim family, Lim Tian Ching appears to her in a dream. Unknown to her, he saw Li Lan at a festival before his death and has wanted to marry her ever since—and now he claims he has come to court her. After this, he continues to haunt her dreams insisting that she will marry him, and when she refuses, he states she has no choice in the matter for she was to be his reward from officials in the afterlife. Lim Tian Ching becomes especially incensed after seeing Li Lan with Tian Bai, asserting that his cousin had him murdered.

This persistent intrusion into her dreams leads Li Lan to seek help from a medium, who gives her a powder to take before sleeping. When it fails to keep Lim Tian Ching away, she takes too much and wakes up the next morning as a spirit, watching her own unconscious form while her household puzzles over what could be wrong. Though Li Lan tries, she can’t rejoin her spirit and body and ends up undertaking a journey to the Plains of the Dead on a mission to discover the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s mysterious dealings in the afterlife—and in the process, learns more about both the Lim family and her own.

The Ghost Bride is a fantastic story, and its setting particularly shines, as well as the writing that brings it alive so vividly. Though there is quite a bit of telling and exposition interspersed throughout Li Lan’s first person narrative, it didn’t bother me as much it often does for a couple of reasons: it was interesting and pertinent information about Malacca in the 1890s and the afterlife, especially considering the setting was the highlight of the novel, and it was usually kept fairly brief before continuing the story. The prose is quite evocative of both the living world with its descriptions of buildings, food, and people and the spirit world with its ghosts and demons (and a dragon makes an appearance!).

The pacing could be a little slow at times, but I didn’t find this to be a huge problem. Despite being a slower book, it was suspenseful since there were a lot of mysteries to resolve as Li Lan traversed the town as a spirit and learned more about the world of the dead. Families, politics, and vendettas from life carried over into the afterlife, allowing Li Lan to learn more about her own family’s past and their connection to the Lim family. I quite enjoyed discovering these along with her, and there were plenty of questions to keep one curious about what would happen: Would Li Lan manage to reconnect her spirit and body, and if so, could she ever be free of Lim Tian Ching’s obsession? Was Lim Tian Ching in fact murdered, and if so, was his cousin the one who killed him? And what were these mysterious dealings Lim Tian Ching was involved with after his death, and how did this tie in to his being promised Li Lan as a reward?

Although the setting and story are wonderful, character is not one of The Ghost Bride‘s strengths. None of the characters are particularly complex and seem to have basic qualities that characterize them: for example, Lim Tian Ching is spoiled, believing himself entitled to anything he wants; Li Lan’s amah is superstitious; and Li Lan’s father is scholarly and dismissive of superstition. Other characters tend to be easily placed into categories such as manipulative, kindly, or evil, and the few that do have more traits are the most intriguing characters.

For the most part, the characters do at least seem consistent and believable with the exception of Li Lan herself. Since she hasn’t had much opportunity to live her life until she becomes a spirit, it’s definitely realistic that she’d have a certain amount of naivete. After all, she’s been especially isolated from a young age since her father hasn’t maintained relationships that would allow her to get to know other people outside their household. However, there are times when she goes beyond naive, jumping to conclusions and completely missing what should have been obvious to her in particular—making her appear far less clever than the book and other characters seemed to believe her to be. By the end of the story, she does undergo some development, having changed due to her experiences, but I also would have liked to see a bit more of how her adventures impacted her as a character (although this is a book that seemed to be focused more on world and mysteries than in-depth characterization).

Since character development is my favorite aspect of reading, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed The Ghost Bride. It’s a fascinating meld of history and fantasy with some mysteries, lovely writing, and a nice touch of romance, and I also appreciated that parts of the story didn’t quite go in the direction I’d expected toward the beginning. Although I did want a little more from the characterization and felt that the dialogue was also one of its weaker aspects, I also found it engaging and look forward to Yangsze Choo’s second novel (The Night Tiger).

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is August’s selection from a poll on Patreon.