I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson
Published by Talos on November 3 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
The nitty-gritty: A magical tale steeped in Chinese folklore and history, with memorable characters, exciting action, humor and one very special eyeball spirit named Mr. Yanqiu.
“This wood came from a peach tree that grew at Mount Longhu,” I said, “in the shadow of the Hanging Coffins. My husband cut the wood himself. He was a Daoshi of the Seventh Ordination. Do you understand? He carved the Seven Stars into its blade, and danced their power. The simple fact that it is made from peachwood means it will be enough to harm a dead man like you. But endowed with the power of the Seven Stars? My sword can slice you apart as easily as steel cuts flesh, you dead ghost.”
I’ve been lucky enough to receive many unsolicited books from Skyhorse Publishing in the last six months or so, but this book from Skyhorse imprint Talos is, ironically, the only one of their books I’ve requested. And boy, what a book! I nearly passed it by when it popped up on Edelweiss, simply because I have way too many review books as it is. But I thank all the Chinese spirits and monsters mentioned in this story that I didn’t pass it up. The Girl With Ghost Eyes will surely be one of my favorite books of the year, and I’m already bemoaning the fact that it’s over, and I don’t know if there will be any more books set in this world! (Note to self: must check with author!)
What makes this book so unexpectedly wonderful are two main ingredients: the vibrant magical world, and the characters. The story is set in Chinatown, San Francisco in the late 1800s, a community of immigrant Chinese workers, some of who can perform powerful magic. The story is told by Xian Li-lin, a young woman who is cursed with yin eyes, or “ghost eyes,” which means she is able to peer into the spirit world and see all manner of spirits, ghosts and monsters. She and her father are Daoshi and earn their living as exorcists, keeping the spirits and monsters at bay.
One day while in her father’s temple, burning paper offerings to her dead husband Rocket, two men approach her and ask for her help. Li-lin agrees to help them by taking a spirit passport to a dead friend in the spirit world. But when she gets there, she realizes she’s been duped: the two men are actually trying to possess Li-lin’s body in the physical world in order to kill her father. What started as a simple errand soon turns into a fight for her life, as Li-lin finds herself trapped and unable to return home. But she is nothing if not resourceful, and before long she has several devoted spirit friends to help her. But a horrible plot is afoot, and with her father injured, it’s up to Li-lin to save the day.
It’s hard to classify this story. Part mystery, part Chinese kung fu western, part ghost story, and loaded with Chinese folklore, both real and imagined, The Girl with Ghost Eyes was such a happy surprise for me. Boroson’s magic system was fresh and entertaining, with everything from spells that are carved on human flesh, to magic swords and other weapons, to the eerie realm of spirits where monsters of all types roam freely. Some of the magic is horrifying (Li-lin’s father gouges out his own eye to send its spirit counterpart to the spirit realm to find her) and some is just plain magical (Li-lin is carried through the air by a flock of magical spirit seagulls), but each instance of magic adds up to some very special world-building.
And for those who love their stories fast-paced, then you’re in for a treat. This book is full of non-stop action, exciting fight scenes, and danger around every corner. Li-lin is trained in kung fu, and she has plenty of chances to show off her skills, while she’s trying to stay alive, of course. Boroson has a knack for ending his chapters in just the right way so that it was nearly impossible for me to stop reading at the end of a chapter!
Li-lin is one of my all-time favorite female characters after reading this book; I simply fell in love with her. She’s got so much depth, in addition to being an amazing fighter and a talented monster hunter, and her Chinese culture has a lot to do with that. Li-lin’s late husband, a man named Rocket who was also a talented Daoshi, was killed by accident in a street brawl, which makes his death even more tragic. Li-lin is faithful to his memory and mourns him daily. As a widow and a female in 1898 Chinatown, her life is hard enough without all the supernatural things she has to deal with as well, and I loved her plucky and determined personality. For a character who is somewhat of a superhero, she makes plenty of mistakes and jumps into situations without thinking first. She reminded me so much of Buffy, having a “gift” that feels more like a curse and having the burden of being one of the few people who can save the world from malevolent spirits.
She also has a very rocky relationship with her father, who has experienced his own tragedies. Li-lin knows in her heart that he wishes she were a boy, and she can’t help but feel that she’s a burden to him. But it was wonderful to see their relationship change and grow, and I loved that amidst all the action and danger was a poignant story about family.
Li-lin has several spirit allies that help her out, and by far my favorite was Mr. Yanqiu, the eyeball spirit that her father sends into the spirit world to save her. At first I laughed at trying to picture a human eyeball with legs and arms, walking around and talking, but trust me, you will ADORE Mr. Yanqiu too! And by the end of the book, as their friendship goes through several twists and turns, I was nothing but a puddle of gooey emotions. Gahhh! Give me more of Li-lin and Mr. Yanqiu, please!
There were so many magical moments in this story, but I’m not going to tell you about them. I’d rather you run out and buy, borrow or steal a copy of this book for yourself, and read it immediately. I expect to see The Girl with Ghost Eyes on lots of “Best of” lists this year. It’s certainly going to be on mine. Highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
This review originally appeared on The Speculative Herald.