Book Review: Black Water Sister

Zen Cho

Rating: 4 out of 5.

published: 21st June 2021
spoilers? sort of



As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans.

Jess soon learns her ‘voice’ belongs to Ah Ma, her late grandmother. She worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. And when a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge. Now she’s decided Jess will help, whether she wants to or not.

As Ah Ma blackmails Jess into compliance, Jess fights to retain control. But her irrepressible relative isn’t going to let a little thing like death stop her, when she can simply borrow Jess’s body to make mischief. As Jess is drawn ever deeper into a world of peril and family secrets, getting a job becomes the least of her worries.

Galley provided by publisher

CWs: violence, attempted rape

I have loved every Zen Cho book I’ve read, so obviously I was always going to want to read Black Water Sister desperately. And I was always expecting to really enjoy it (which I did). It’s a different tack to Zen Cho’s other books, in that there was a fair bit more violence and gore than I was expecting, but still a very good read.

In Black Water Sister, Jess has returned to Malaysia with her parents, who’ve just been laid off work, and they’re living with her aunt and uncle. There, Jess finds that she’s being haunted by her grandmother, who has unfinished business which she won’t fully explain to Jess, and also the Black Water Sister, whom her grandmother was the medium for.

Zen Cho’s writing has this way of hooking you from the start. You read one chapter and then you think, maybe just one more, and before you realise it, you’re halfway through the book with no desire to put it down. That’s pretty much what was the case with me and this book. I started it at work, in a 3-hours-of-waiting-around break, and when I looked up again I’d almost finished.

Part of what makes this book so compelling is Jess. She’s a main character you’ll love from page one. The sort that you know you’ll root for from the moment they arrive. Basically, the sort of character that Zen Cho writes best. And her familial relationships were all great too (particularly with Ah Ma, because that was just truly chaotic at times and fun to read).

The book also has a plot that sucks you in. Like I said up top, it’s a little more violent than I was expecting, so I would recommend bearing that in mind when you read it (especially since there is a fairly graphic scene where the mc is about to be gang raped, plus flashbacks to femicide and domestic abuse), but it’s so compelling throughout. You want to find out what’s happening, just as Jess does. It keeps you on your toes.

All of which to say that when this book releases, you’ll want to be first in line to read it.

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