Kung Fu Chinatown Ghost Busters
Zombies. Chinatown. Kung Fu. Talking Eyeballs. Rope-darts. Black magic. Three-eyed gulls. Ever wished you could have all these things in one book? No? The Girl with Ghost Eyes will make you had.
Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1898, the book is a delightful blend of fantasy, horror, mystery and suspense, with a heavy dose of Chinese mythology and a touch of Bruce Lee. We follow Li Lin, earnest and dutiful if impetuous daughter/acolyte of Chinatown’s best exorcist, as she runs up against problems and plots too big to handle and somehow fails her way through them, with a little help from magical creatures. She is a delight to follow, and the mythico-historical 1890s Chinatown adds some welcome punch to otherwise well-worn tropes the book calls on.
Perhaps the most fun thing about the book is the amount of Chinese mythology in it—from strange ghosts and complex incantations to arranged marriages for dead people and evil spirit dogs, it is hard to escape the suspicion Boroson is a wildly imaginative author, though in an afterward he claims the details are drawn from actual Chinese lore. But like Chinatown, The Girl with Ghost Eyes has enough concessions to American sensibilities—kung fu fights and gang rivalries and displaced people learning to adjust—that it never feels alienating. More like ordering takeout on Christmas Eve, or keeping that fortune cookie slip even if you don’t quite believe in it.
Alongside bloody exorcisms and kung fu battles, the book has a gentler side—a protagonist struggling to recognize a father’s love, a quirky cast of ghostly sidekicks, and a message about acceptance despite fear or cultural bias. One of the strengths of the book is its moral spectrum—from a villain bullied as a child and a gangster with good intentions going wrong, to killer tigers become Buddhist monks and insane mobsters with hearts of gold, Boroson leaves no character unsympathetic, and in a brief book still sketches his side characters with admirable detail.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Like a 1980s Godzilla costume or hastily-erected Jackie Chan set, there are some loveable imperfections here. The larger plot is a fairly predicatable villainous scheme, and the protagonist’s motivations sometimes seem grafted on to it, as though in each chapter we need to be reminded why she still cares and is still fighting for this particular cause. Because of this the book can have an episodic feel, especially in the first half, easy to put down until the larger plot surfaces.
Still, it’s a quick read, and a real palate-cleanser if you’ve grown used to medieval fantasy and Christian-based horror and unspeculative historical fiction. Boroson spins a believable web of Chinese mythology around a fun setting and a quirky characters, and if the story lacks grace here and there, like its characters we are fooled into loving its imperfections.
An Epic Line in the Sand
Not all epic fantasies deserve the title: limited in character, shallowly worldbuilt, some so-called epics read more like a thriller or an action move than a saga. Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves is not one of these. Epic in length, epic in scope, epic in its cast of characters and threads of storyline, the book is, well, epic.
Better yet, it’s an epic saga—starting with one cast of characters, after 100 pages (of 800, note) Elliott boldly skips us forward two generations, killing some of the characters we were following and severely aging the rest. Royal (and bastard) bloodlines are central to the story, and in a world where there are eight types of sentient species, crossed blood takes on a whole new significance.
The book is epic in scope: set in “the hundred,” a vast land with well-written cultures, climates and economies, we soon learn it has enemies, ancestors and trading partners to all sides, not to mention an Empire that dwarfs it. Black Wolves is mysteriously (and frustratingly) without an opening map, as though to say the world wouldn’t fit, so why try?
The book is epic in character. They are old and young, male and female, from every culture and species important to the plotline. Elliot has a touch for creating loveable, unique characters, whether major or minor, and they a big part of the reason this 800-page book never feels long.
Okay, it’s epic. But is it worth a read? That depends on what you’re ready for. Though it never gets ponderous, the many plotlines don’t come together in an (ahem) epic finale so much as sort of crisscross as the plot thickens. Something like the end of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, or some of the middle Wheel of Time novels, the ending lacks a big climax—it feels more like middle action for a climax that’s so epic we need another 800 page book to get there. So here’s where the line gets drawn in the fantasy sand: an epic reader will be okay with this. Many others, after 800 pages of reading, will not.
And some of us will have a foot in both camps. I’m a lover (and writer) of epic fantasy—but also a lover of solid beginnings middles and ends—which Elliott doesn’t really give us. A few well-timed surprises or plot twists might ameliorate this somewhat, but most of the twists and reveals that come are foreshadowed enough to carry little surprise when they hit.
This can be a strength, if you’re invested for the long haul. At book’s end we feel we’re just scratching the surface of the magic and plots afoot, and the cultures and people that inhabit Elliott’s world. That’s impressive for an 800-page book that never gets dull, but may be a stretch for those of us without Dostoyevskian amounts of time to sit and read by firelight.
There’s no doubt which side of the epic line Elliott’s new novel falls on. And if you’re not sure where you do, Black Wolves will sort you out.