Hot Key Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-4714-0079-7
Historical Paranormal Fiction, 2013
Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride makes me feel ancient, because I remember my grandmother telling me about ghost marriages similar to those described by the author here. Oh well, as long as I’m still young at heart, I suppose.
Set in Malaya during the 1890’s, the story focuses on our heroine Pan Li Lan, as she tries to wiggle out of a marriage contract to Lim Tian Ching, who happens to be dead. Li Lan’s family has fallen on hard times, and the Lim family is offering a lot of money for Li Lan, but Li Lan is, understandably, “Hell, no!” about the whole thing. The thing is, the bridegroom-to-be starts showing up in her dreams, insisting that she’d be great as his wife, and she decides that she’s in love with a living guy instead. Tian Ching is not going to take no for an answer, however, and he claims to have some of the more powerful folks running the afterlife in his pockets. Can Li Lan successfully wiggle her way out of this mess and find a happy ending with her true love?
This story has all the woo-woo stuff related to Chinese beliefs of ghosts and the afterlife, and the paranormal aspects are interesting, I suppose. There is one big problem here, though: the story revolves around Li Lan, naturally, and she is a wretched and dull protagonist.
She is seventeen, but goodness, she could very well be thirteen from how she behaves and thinks in this story. It is a given that heroines in young adult stories tend to be self-absorbed and even self-centered, but Li Lan isn’t just all about herself – she’s also gullible. Gullibility and me-me-me don’t make an attractive combo in a heroine, especially when Li Lan doesn’t show any sense of humor to make these personality traits of hers palatable.
This is an issue because the plot typically sees her being led from one point to another, carried by various other characters that are far more capable and intelligent than her. Li Lan rarely initiates anything on her own, but is instead held aloft by others as she reacts to various circumstances and situations. More problematic is how the solutions to her problems are often handed to her by other characters. Our heroine doesn’t show any emotional growth throughout the story. She’s like a bigger chatterbox version of a princess in a palanquin, carried around by the guys that adore her even as she takes her time to pout and acts like that she’s the most important person in the whole universe.
As I’ve mentioned, she’s also very easy to fool, so the story also sees her flying wildly from one conclusion to another, all of them wrong. Without her boyfriend, who for some reason wants to marry her and be with her forever despite the fact that there is nothing about her that should stand out to someone of his stature, she’d have long been toast to the ghosts.
I guess if one wants to see The Ghost Bride as a showcase of Malayan Chinese cultures of three centuries ago, then it’s pretty decent, although some of the speech patterns here are jarringly modern. Li Lan is also one of those heroines with jarringly contemporary thoughts and concepts, standing out like an odd duck amidst the care of the author to make the traditional cultural details feel as authentic as possible. As a story that centers on the heroine, this one is hardly satisfying, especially considering the heroine’s personality and the lack of her own involvement in getting to the finish line.