Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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Who wants to read about ghosts, gangsters, and closeted lesbians trying to navigate through their families homophobia?

Yeah? Sound interesting? This might be for you.

Jess grew up in America after her parents immigrated from Malaysia when she was a young girl. She was so young that she remembers next to nothing about growing up there. She’s gone back to visit, but her upbringing was largely based in the United States. She’s graduated college recently but hasn’t been able to land a job, and what’s more stressful is that she’s being moved back to Malaysia since her parents are going back. She begins to hear voices in her head and thinks that it’s just stress and lack of sleep… but yeah, no. It’s hear dead grandmother who’s come back as a ghost to get her to wrap up her unfinished business.

Things get even more complicated because it turns out that her grandmother was a medium for a spirit known as the Black Water Sister — a pissed off ghost/god that even her grandmother fears. Complications collide when Jess gets tangled up in underground crime syndicates and their families when Gods get mad when their temples and shrines are desecrated.

There’s tension on every level, but this is still a more intimate story about a young woman and her family as much as it is about spirits and gods and crime. Her sexuality is a constant source of stress since her mom does not appear to be too open minded when it comes to same sex relationships. She considers the word lesbian to be dirty and not to be spoken in polite company… or at all, preferably. Most of the family in Malaysia is Christian, but her mother isn’t (Taoist) and it’s a cause of a riff which makes for even more complicated familial ties.

I loved the world building in this, it’s nuanced and intricate but not overwhelming or confusing — and all of that was done without info dumping which takes skill. The writing style was efficient and created vivid scenes using a minimal amount of page time to do it. The dialogue was fascinating to me since it’s what’s known as Singlish which is a creole language based out of Singapore. I don’t have any exposure to this in real life or when reading in fantasy which made reading this a brand new perspective I hadn’t had before. There is a big focus on culture and family dynamics, and although I’m more familiar with those concepts than I am with Singlish, it was still a deeper dive into Malaysian and Chinese culture than I’ve had in fantasy reads before.

I found Jess to be a relatable character and I loved the way she handled herself through brand new and stressful situations. She didn’t believe in ghosts before encountering her own estranged grandmother as a voice in her head. She never had any experience in dealing with dangerous people, or violent situations and managed to get through it without losing her mind.

I would highly recommend this to basically anyone — but especially to those looking for Asian LGBTQ+ representation.


  • Plot: 11/14
  • Characters: 12.5/15
  • World Building: 13/15
  • Writing: 12/15
  • Pacing: 11/15
  • Originality: 13/15
  • Enjoyment: 7.5/10

Final Score: 80/100