DNF Book Review: The Girl with Ghost Eyes, M. H. Boroson (2015)

November 2nd, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

 

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring great shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

With a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also the poignant story of a young immigrant searching to find her place beside the long shadow of a demanding father and the stigma of widowhood. In a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity, one woman may be the key to holding everything together.

(summary via Goodreads)

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence.)

DNF at 30%.

Between the gorgeous cover, the captivating summary, and all the wonderful blurbs, The Girl with Ghost Eyes sounds like a book I should love: Buffy and Kill Bill are my jam; I generally enjoy historical fiction; and BAMF women protagonists will forever have a special place in my heart.

And some of the elements did indeed resonate with me. Li-lin’s reluctance to exorcise Mr. Yanqiu – the genial yet sarcastic spirit of her father’s eyeball – at her father’s insistence questions what it means to be human vs. monstrous, calling to mind the ongoing arguments between Sam and Dean Winchester: Are all monsters inherently “bad”? Can monsters overcome their “monstrous” natures? Are you born a monster, or do you become one? Are we more like that “other” than we care to believe? And, if so, what does this mean for the fate of humanity?

Li-lin’s narrative also alludes to the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny she encounters as a widowed Chinese immigrant in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. For example, Li-lin worries that her father, a Seventh Ordination Daoshi exorcist, cannot destroy a certain Yao without incurring the wrath of a racist lynch mob: “it would look to the rest of the world as though a Chinese immigrant had murdered a young white woman and cut out her guts.” The Chinese Exclusion Act is mentioned multiple times; Li-lin was only allowed into the U.S. because the Ansheng tong – a gang to the outside world, a benevolent organization to those it provides assistance – bribed those officials in charge.

To say that Li-lin’s father is an unpleasant man is a understatement; when she becomes trapped in the spirit world, he only sends his eyeball in search of her to save his own face. (“The irony of maiming his face to save face probably hadn’t occurred to him.”) His daughter’s life? Not so much. He’s only trained Li-lin to the Second Ordination, and openly derides those of the Fifth as weak fools. But hey, why would he care about Li-lin’s self-esteem when her very soul is forfeit?

Yet, try as I might, I just couldn’t get lost in the story. Every time I picked it up, I found myself nodding off after a chapter or two. Despite the more bizarre flairs and imaginative world-building, I found the writing surprisingly dull. The narrator takes a very matter-of-fact, even detached tone – even when she’s raging – which made me feel removed from the story. Additionally, Boroson describes the fight scenes in a fair amount of technical detail; this sapped away at any sense of suspense or action I might have felt.

Yet I don’t want to discourage you from giving it a try! Judging from the blurbs and positive early reviews, I seem to be in the minority here. I didn’t like it, but maybe you will? To quote Amy Poehler: “Good for her, not for me.”

(This review is also available on Library Thing and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. The story is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898; all of the characters I encountered (I DNF’ed at 31%) are Asian. Additionally, Li-lin alludes to the misogyny and racism she experiences as a widowed Chinese immigrant with yin eyes – the ability to see the spirit world. See my review for more.

Animal-friendly elements: Upon witnessing a cat spirit being tormented by a group of boys, Li-lin frees it from her father’s trap so that he can defend himself. The boys’ wounds are so severe that they end up in the hospital. Later on, when Li-lin finds herself trapped in the spirit world, the cat comes to her assistance.

 

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