I had a lot of fun with this book, a plot-driven historical fantasy novel whose fantastical elements are based on Chinese conceptions of the afterlife. Admittedly, I found part one (of four) a little tedious: this segment is more historical fiction than fantasy, and doesn’t play as much to Choo’s strengths – which are plot and imagination – than the remainder of the book. Once it gets going though, it’s a great adventure, and I really enjoyed reading a fantasy based on non-European mythology. Readers should be aware that, as with most historical fantasy, it shouldn’t be taken literally as a guide to anyone’s belief system: Choo explains in the afterword that she meshed together various strains of thought and invented elements of her own. But it was still a lot of fun to see certain cultural practices, like burning paper objects for the dead, made real and carried to their logical conclusions. And meanwhile it’s a lively and accessible adventure that should appeal to a lot of western readers who might be intimidated by books from other cultures.
That said, it can come across as a little too explanatory sometimes – while set in 1890s Malaysia (and its associated afterworld), it’s clearly pitched at a western audience. The characters are not particularly complex or unique, and the writing style is perfectly functional but not notable for its own sake. But as a lighthearted, fun historical fantasy, it’s great, and I’d definitely be interested in reading more from this author.