“A Chinatown Ghost Story.”
Disclaimer. I first heard about this on our forum, where the author posted about it. That said, my copy of it was bought and paid for from Amazon at full price, so I’ve no commercial bias. And of the 58 customer reviews currently on Amazon, not one is less than four stars, and it’s also rated at 4.2 stars on Goodreads, so I’m comfortable my appreciation of it appears to fall in line with others, and is no way appears abnormal.
It takes place in turn of the century San Francisco, almost exclusively in the city’s Chinatown, and is told in the first person by Xian Li-lin, who is 23, already a widow, and “a Maoshan Nu Daoshi of the Second Ordination.” That’s a clause which probably makes no sense. Don’t worry, one of Boroson’s strengths is explaining a world which is about as weird as Middle-earth. She’s effectively an exorcist in training, under the watchful eye (literally!) of her stern, much more experienced father, and who has the ability – or curse, in her father’s opinion – of being able to see the many different kinds of spirits which inhabit the world alongside us. A supposedly simple ceremony, involving Li-Lin visiting the astral plane, turns into an ambush, staged with the intent of possessing her and using her to attack her father.
For his rival, Liu Qiang, has teamed up with one of Chinatown’s organized crime leaders, with a plan to use dark magic to raise the Kulou-Yianling, a nightmarish creation that will destroy all their rivals. Naturally, knowing Li-Lin’s father would stop them, the first step is to take him out. While that doesn’t quite succeed, it does enough damage to leave his daughter as the only person standing in their way. But as a mere second-level exorcist – albeit one who also has good martial-arts talent – can she stand up to, and defeat, someone far above her? Perhaps, if she can convince some of those spirits she can see to help her – though they must first put aside their concerns about helping an exorcist.
There’s a similar feel to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away here, with quirky characters including an animated eyeball (I told you her father kept a literal eye on her…), a tiger-monk and three-eyed seagulls. There are less appealing creatures too, not least the monstrous Kulou-Yianling, which feels like it may have strayed in out of H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, and incidentally, the manner in which Li-Lin eventually handles it is elegant and simple; let’s just say that the bigger you are, the larger become your vulnerable spots. If anything, there’s perhaps too much going on, in terms of invention, with creatures blazing across the firmament of the storyline almost tangentially. At one point, Li-Lin witnesses the Night Parade, a near-endless procession of the weird, the freakish and the outlandish, and readers may feel the same way, to some extent.
However, that’s a minor quibble, when set besides the positives, such as Boroson’s handle on the kung fu. Writing a description of martial arts is hard: like editing a fight sequence, you have to balance excitement with coherence and pacing. You don’t want to spend 10 times as long describing something as it would take to watch, yet need more than “She kicked him. Repeatedly.” Boroson gets the balance right, creating passages that flow, like a good fight should, and making it easy for the reader to imagine what’s going on, in their mind’s eye. I’d love to see this turned into a film, though it would certainly not be cheap to make – and, unfortunately, Lam Ching-Ying, who would have been perfect as Li-Lin’s father in my mental cinema, died in 1997.
It’s a thoroughly engaging read, with a setting that’s new (to me) and a heroine who is well-rounded, with just enough imperfections to make her seem real. I will be eagerly looking forward to the next installment of Li-Lin’s adventures, which I’m assured is in the works.
Author: M. H. Boroson
Publisher: Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.