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.