"One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride..."
Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family's darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads
Title? Sold. Cover? Double sold. Summary, setting, premise? I needed this book two days before I'd even heard of it. I was immediately hooked, and once I got my grabby little hands on it, I tore through it in two days.
Almost everything about this book worked for me. Choo offers so many cultural and historical details that were entirely new to me, and most of them fit seamlessly into an engaging plot. I loved learning more about the historical dress, diet, and history of late 19th century Malaya (Malaysia), and that was before I got to the rich superstitions and folklore. This was all to the good because although the plot is engaging, it is not quick. You really have to want to wander the streets of this port city with Li Lan and her Amah, to visit with the fortune teller, explore the market place, get lost in the afterlife, and be haunted by a variety of spirits. Luckily that's pretty much all I wanted to do, so, no problems there.
Besides, the pace does pick up in certain parts, especially as Li Lan unravels more of the mysteries facing her and uncovers more of her family's past, while racing to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Fans of Spirited Away or historical/magic realist novels should be excited about this one, and while most libraries will probably have it shelved with adult fiction, its young protagonist, supernatural elements, and romance will appeal to many readers of YA.
(To get especially nerdy for a moment, I would trade a small, non-essential organ to have this adapted into a video game by Vanillaware, the company that brought us Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The combination of mythology, spirits, exploring underworlds, fighting otherworldly perils, helpful companions, and taking time out for noodles and other traditional foods makes me long for an RPG adaptation in the WORST way)