M.H. Bronson has given us a fantastic novel in The Girl with Ghost Eyes. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the late 1800s this is one part historical fantasy, one part coming-of-age story, and one part gangster movie. I was hooked from the beginning and could hardly put the book down. I think Bronson achieved this result, for me anyway, mostly because of the incredible viewpoint character he has crafted in Xian Li-lin.
Li-lin is a Daoshi - essentially an exorcist - but she isn’t a very good one. Her father, on the other hand, is the most well-known and respected Daoshi in Chinatown. Li-lin wants to bring honor to her father, and her lineage generally, but feels quite incapable of doing so. This central tension is simple and relatable on the surface, but it moves along much of the plot and character development throughout the book. It’s masterfully done by Bronson. Because this central tension is so relatable, it makes Li-lin immediately likable and she makes a wonderful heroine for the book. Of course, the main character isn’t the only excellent aspect of this novel. The world building is wonderful too, particularly Bronson’s way of portraying the clash between Chinese culture and American culture that exists in his Chinatown. Not only that, but because we see everything from Li-lin’s perspective we also come to understand how important honor, or “having face,” is to her and to those around her. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a culture quite different from typical American culture and the novel is made better for it. The magic in this novel, both in its use and its portrayal, is another element that stands out. As you’d expect with a main character who is an exorcist, spirits play an important an integral role in this story. This is made possible partially because Li-lin, is the titular girl with ghost eyes. That is, she can see the realm of spirits. This has wide-ranging implications for her, but as readers it means we’re treated to some wonderfully creative descriptions of the spirit realm. There are a few moments that are reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but without being derivative - and, of course, we’re talking about Japanese mythology there, versus Chinese understandings of spirits here. In the end, as cool and epic as this story is, it’s a beautifully personal story about loss and coming into one’s own at its heart.
There aren’t many issues or distractions here. Bronson does have a tendency to repeat information, especially early on in the book. While this might be helpful in easing some readers into the story, I felt it was a bit too much on the nose hand holding and it jarred me out of the story several times. Along similar lines, there is a tendency to fully repeat names, rather than use pronouns, in dialog. This may very well be a culture standard of which I’m ignorant, but it did feel a bit odd at times and made the dialog feel a little stilted to my admittedly Western ears.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is a great read, and one that should absolutely be near the top of your TBR. It’s a beautiful story that is intensely personal while also delivering plenty of epic action. Beyond even this, however, is the skill with which Bronson has given us a relatable and unique main character. Don’t miss out on Li-lin’s story!
Review by Calvin Park
8.8/10 from 1 reviews
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