What does a girl who is despised by white society and the male members of her own society owe anyone? Li-lin can see and exorcise ghosts, a big problem in San Francisco’s fin de siècle Chinatown. Without her intervention, ghosts will wander the afterlife forever or turn into monsters. She’s not entirely powerless. Yet, Li-lin can never make her father happy. Men constantly “mistake” her for a prostitute. In M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes, Li-lin is the only person who can stop the complete—and messy—destruction of Chinatown. Her only allies are a cat spirit, an animated eyeball, and a Buddhist tiger who has taken an oath not to kill.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is a crash course in the varied schools of practical magic and belief in China. Li-lin’s father trained her in Maoshan Daoshi. (The author notes that this school is fictional, but based on actual Chinese magic and religion). There are passages in this book I felt like I ought to be taking notes or do some serious searching online to find out about the many monsters and demons Li-lin meets. When we meet her, Li-lin has been asked to create a soul passport for the ghost of a friend of the local tong’s leader’s son. (Got all that?) It seems strange. The two men who visit Li-lin have waited too long and it’s now an emergency. Still, Li-lin can’t refuse the son of the tong’s leader. The emergency ends up being the opening gambit in a supernatural plot to take over Chinatown.
Li-lin, once she figures out what’s happening and who’s responsible, has to seek out her own allies. Her father tries to take care of the coming problem, but he’s not well enough. Li-lin and her father’s enemies constantly attack the old man. He spends most of the book in the hospital. Li-lin is essentially on her own. If the quest to save Chinatown wasn’t enough for her, Li-lin also begins to realize that the enforced boundaries between the mundane world and the supernatural world might be unfair. Ghosts are automatically exorcised and monsters are automatically destroyed. The more time Li-lin spends with her friend the eyeball (Mr. Yanqiu), the more she realizes that not everything that’s supernatural is dangerous. Most of the supernatural creatures are just trying to carrying on with their lives(?) just like their counterparts in the mundane world.
Li-lin is given chance after chance to walk away. It would be safer for her to walk away. But she knows that hundreds of innocent people will die if everything goes to plan. The innocents (and not so innocent people) who will die are anything but kind to Li-lin. Why should she fight—and maybe die—for people who think she’s just an uppity woman? The Girl with Ghost Eyes gives readers so much to think about.
When I started reading The Girl with Ghost Eyes, I mentally flinched when characters mentioned “losing face.” It seemed regressive and, possibly, racist. Boroson, in his note at the end of the book, did a lot of research on this book. I honestly don’t know enough about fin de siècle Chinese immigrant society in America to know if “face” was a) a thing and b) as big a deal as this story portrays. I’m shrugging right now, because I don’t know what to make of this recurring idea. I’m writing about it because I want to give readers a heads up that this book includes characters “losing face.”
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 November 2015.