The Ghost Bride was something of an impulse purchase. It was featured in a books-on-sale newsletter I get, and I had an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket. So a novel set in late 19th-century Malaysia, about an old Chinese custom so rarely performed that few people even knew it was a thing? This was 100% up my alley.
And I’m glad, because it was a wonderful story, with some lovely description and an absolutely fascinating setting, well worth reading.
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
A good 50%-60% of the novel takes place in the world of the dead, either with the the ghosts roaming the human world in Malacca or the Plains of the Dead, where the spirits stay before they proceed onto the courts for judgment.
I love historical novels anyway, so that alone was a mark in this story’s favor. But I know very little about China and even less about Malaysia, so that world was completely new to me and utterly fascinating.
The story’s descriptions are stunning. The jungle heat and humidity, the crush of people living in the town, the beauty and creepiness of the Lim mansion, all of it built together to create a very vivid setting.
I loved the depictions of Malaya and Malacca, both at the beginning of the book and after Li Lan had entered the world of the dead. It was amazing to read about all the ghosts walking our world and where they went after, how they ate, what happened to ghosts who went hungry or were forgotten, the importance of their offerings and rites. It’s such a fantastic glimpse into another culture, and it’s clear Choo did her homework.
It’s billed a little as a romance (or at least, having strong romantic elements), but the romance is negligible. And really, this isn’t a bad thing. I didn’t particularly care if she chose Tian Bai or Er Lang, perhaps unsurprising since I have a strong dislike of love triangles. I think it bothered me less here because so much of the story’s focus was on Li Lan untangling the mysteries in the afterlife and finding a way to reunite her spirit with her body.
On the down side, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters. I liked Li Lan well enough, but she fell into being a damsel with some disturbing regularity, despite taking initiative to face her fears and search for clues and information while she was in the Plains of the Dead. As I already said, I didn’t particularly care if she ended up with Tian Bai or Er Lang, not just because so little of the book focused on the romance but also because neither of them made a very strong impression themselves.
It also didn’t help that a good chunk of the mystery plot was solved without too much direct involvement on Li Lan’s part. It made that aspect of the story fall a little flat to me. In a way, she came across as a very reactive protagonist, instead of a proactive one.
Despite these failings, though, I really enjoyed the book, enough to finish it and enough to recommend it. If you like historical novels and the afterlife, I would encourage you to give The Ghost Bride a chance.