Kung Fu and Monsters: A Review of The Girl with Ghost Eyes

The Girl with Ghost Eyes (2015)
Written by: M. H. Boroson
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 306 (Mass Market Paperback)
Publisher: Talos Press

Why I Chose It: I met M.H. Boroson at the Pikes Peak Writers conference this year and took his workshop on writing better fight scenes. He was fun to listen to and seemed to have a really cool background in Chinese culture, mythology, and kung fu movies that I assumed would translate to his book. I also admit that the cover is quite eye-catching.

The Premise:

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 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.

Very Mild Spoilers Below


Discussion: I was so excited to read this book. It’s got everything a nerdy girl could wish for. Turn of the century Chinatown. Kung fu. Asian monsters. Badass female protagonist. And yet it fell kind of flat for me.

The whole way through the book I felt like I was missing something with Boroson’s style. I don’t know how else to describe it except as a problem with proportion. Boroson spent so much time on making Li-lin’s intentions and emotions clear that I felt like he was beating me over the head with all her plans and her rage. I get that she’s trapped with no one to help, you don’t need to tell me that over and over. Once was enough. She’s going to get revenge, she’s going to ask monsters for help, she’s going to make her father proud. These are all things I really want to see her do. I don’t want to see her talk about doing them. Again. For the third time.

At the same time, there were places where something subtle turned a whole scene aside, and I could have used more in the way of explanation. I had to go back and re-read sections, and I still felt like I missed the import of whatever word or glance became the lynchpin of that change. And weird little questions went unanswered. For instance, why was her traditionalist Chinese husband, who didn’t even speak English, named Rocket? Still wondering.

This problem seemed to smooth out a bit after her father comes on the scene about a quarter of the way through the book. But it made getting through the beginning an act of will and colored my first impression.

There was still plenty to enjoy in the book, even if Boroson’s style threw me off. Like the setting. Scenery doesn’t really do it for me, unless it’s particularly unique and vivid. The Girl with Ghost Eyes was both. I haven’t ever been to San Francisco’s Chinatown, but my family lived in Singapore when I was growing up, so some of my formative years were spent overseas. It was really nice to read a fantasy about a non-western protagonist dealing with all the politics and magic of her native culture. So much research and rich detail went into this book to make it really come to life. Boroson used his experience and knowledge to evoke not just the sights, but the sounds and smells from my own memories. I could see the lanterns, the street vendors, and the cobblestones, and from there it wasn’t hard to see ghosts and monsters walking down those same streets.

Another plus, Boroson’s ability to parallel the internal conflict with the external helped to yank my impression back up. I really liked the way Li-lin’s emotional battle and moral conundrum echoed what was going on in the world around her and how the modern was struggling with the traditional.

Every new generation feels the conflict between old ways and new ways, but it is especially important to immigrants trying to survive in a new country while retaining the values and traditions they’ve brought from home. And this struggle was echoed in the smaller conflict within Li-lin’s own heart. She’s trying to respect her father and fit herself within his expectations and ideals, while at the same time trying to be strong enough to keep him safe. She is an nontraditional supplicant to a traditional magical legacy and therefore still finding her balance.

I would have liked more from this conflict with her father. We get told over and over that her father disregards and undervalues her, but we aren’t really told why. Obviously most of it is the whole girl-in-a-heavily-patriarchal-society thing (China has an especially brutal history with this), but it would have been nice to get more depth out of that particular tension.

I think this was one of my biggest problems with the book. Li-lin goes through so much change in her worldview and her abilities that it was very jarring when her relationship with her father didn’t go through a similar change. He ended in exactly the same place he started. Maybe I just wanted that reconciliation too much. Maybe this is a setup for a sequel. Whatever the reason, it meant that one of the most important characters to Li-lin’s growth had no character arc of his own. I recognize what Boroson was trying to do, what her father was supposed to represent. Some stiff necks just won’t bend no matter how the times change. But I wanted Li-lin’s heroism and bravery to move him into change, and I had a hard time feeling like the payoff was enough without it.

Despite that, the theme of change and growth was the strongest part of the book. Li-lin’s experiences outside of her father’s strictures are molding her worldview into something that actually reflects reality. The world is not black and white. Her infallible all-powerful father can in fact make mistakes. The gang that has kept her safe and been her whole life until now is unstable and self-serving to her detriment. And monsters who should always be destroyed are actually funny, charming, and actually help her.

Boroson did a really good job with characters who aren’t what they seem. Characters who straddle the border of what Li-lin expects and what she sees. My favorites were those Li-lin originally regarded as monsters but who eventually became friends. Her gradual acceptance of their worth despite what she had been taught was the most interesting part of the book.

I love this theme of the ambiguity of good and evil. Monsters can be allies. Humans can be monsters. And sometimes evil is simply inaction.

In Conclusion: This was not my favorite read. I had too much trouble getting past my problems with the writing to really enjoy the veritable buffet of good content. However, I’m very picky when it comes to actual words on the page. I’m still glad I read it, and it was at least interesting with lots of cool fight scenes and monsters. If you’re at all into Chinese culture and mythology, I hope you’ll check it out.

2 Comments

  • Lane Robins June 29, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Interesting! I have checked this book out of the library twice, but haven’t gotten around to reading it either times. (Sometimes my library haul is more… aspirational than doable). I’m not sure if your review tips me either way about picking it up a third time.

    Reply
    • kendrame June 29, 2017 at 7:43 pm

      I do the exact same thing at the library. I guess I’d say you should give it a try. I tend to be pretty picky but I thought the monsters and the fight scenes were worth it.

      Reply

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