Li Lan is the studious daughter of a noble but bankrupt Chinese family, and as such has few prospects for a successful marriage in 1890s Malaysia. When a marriage offer from the powerful Lim family comes, it is to wed Li Lan to their recently deceased son, Tian Ching. This ‘ghost marriage’ is meant to appease Tian Ching’s spirits after a mysterious death, and offers Li Lan her best chance at a secure life. Li Lan refuses, but finds her dreams haunted by the jealous and powerful Tian Ching. Li Lan is drawn into the haunting parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, populated with ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, spirits both petty and monstrous, and a remarkable amount of bureaucracy. The only thing that protects Li Lan is an enigmatic guardian spirit, Er Lang, and her own determination.
This supernatural fantasy by Yangsze Choo provides a beautiful dive into a fascinating setting. The early chapters of the book take place in colonial Malaysia (Malaya, in the 1890s), which springs off the page. But it is once Li Lan enters the Chinese spirit world that Choo really shines. This is a belief system I know almost nothing about, and Choo managed to keep my enthralled and surprised without ever leaving me confused or needing more.
Choo’s characters and plot are the many vehicles into the world that Choo creates for us, and as such are a little shallow. Li Lan serves her character purpose well; she is not dripping with detail, but neither is she a total cookie cutter. She serves to highlight the setting, mythology, and culture of the story. While Choos characters do not have much depth, they do have nuance. Perhaps because the spirit world of Chinese belief is so similar to the real world (with class problems, servants, bureaucracy, bribes, and petty feuds and trickery)- the heroes and villains of Choo’s story are nuanced: humorous, pitiful, annoying, charming, and loathsome all together, even when they are ghoulish monsters or her very own father.
I chewed through The Ghost Bride in two days, delighted all the while. This story does not follow the typical adventure arc a reader might expect- the love triangle barely exists, Li Lan never has to do battle with her tormentor Tian Ching, important characters come and go very quickly, the palace intrigue is not revealed in a ‘gotcha!’ moment. We never even make it to the Courts of Hell! Instead, this is a patient exploration of a cultural belief system, both the spooky and mundane, and the question of what it means to be free in a world where duty, family, and culture are more powerful a force than death itself. The Ghost Bride is a delicate and fascinating ghost story, with just enough court intrigue, romance, and adventure to keep things recognizable for the general YA reader.