Encapsulates what it might feel like to live during that era while also introducing incredible elements of fantasy, horror, action, spirituality, religion, deep character growth, and sheer wonder.
Note: ARC provided by Edelweiss. This ARC is also available in the Read Now section of NetGalley within the U.S. This book will be released on October 1, 2019.
“How could we hope to heal from the traumas of the past, when those traumas shape who we are and how we act in the present?”
A few months ago, I learned that the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee wrote an eight-page treatment for a story about Chinese immigration in the old American West. Cinemax had developed a television show based on Lee’s work called “Warrior,” about a man who emigrates from China to San Francisco in the late 19th century in search of his sister. While not historically factual, I still learned many things. Instead of the vast American riches that many of their countrymen sought, the Chinese were segregated into a small, dilapidated area, nicknamed Chinatown, where gangs and tongs fought for the control of organized crime in the city: opium dens, brothels, and illegal wares. Most of the Chinese were conscripted to slave labor conditions, barely paid enough to eat and survive. They were forced to build railroads and other city infrastructure and were easily replaced with new immigrants when they died of sickness, exhaustion, or mistreatment. The Chinese were also easy targets for the rampant racism laced throughout the populace. Stepping outside Chinatown was enough cause to be beaten or arrested, regardless if you were just walking to work or buying food. If you were a Chinese immigrant, everything was stacked against you: you were poor, you were surrounded by hate and ignorance, and there was nowhere else to go.
This is the setting for M. H. Boroson’s “The Daoshi Chronicles,” debuting in 2015 with The Girl with Ghost Eyes, and now releasing its second volume, The Girl with No Face. Although the books are serialized, one can start with The Girl with No Face and not feel lost, though I do recommend starting at the beginning. You’re going to want to spend as much time with Li-Lin as possible.
“I already know the word zhongli, the attraction between celestial bodies. The Americans had their own name for it: ‘gravity.’ That word had another meaning, because gravity is seriousness. I loved that image, object drawing closer because of how seriously they took each other. Growing up I was always the moon orbiting my father’s planet, eclipsed by him and in his shadow.”
I realize I’ve painted a grim setting so far, but this book is filled with beauty and wonder. It is a blend of historical fiction, horror fantasy, Chinese mythology, Dao religion, ancient customs, spiritual monsters, and demon-slaying sword fights that venture into the gates of Hell itself. It’s also a tender story of a widowed young woman whose gender is seen as secondary in her society, and her rare gift of seeing the spirit world complicates her relationship with her more traditionally-leaning father. Her incredible bravery and sense of moral justice are often dismissed simply because she is a woman. But her father is also her mentor, and the only family she has left in this world after her husband was killed by American constables. Although she has led a difficult life, Li-Lin acts with honor, deference, and determination. She often finds herself in dangerous situations, but she aims to be resolve them in other ways first, using violence as a last resort.
“The world is not kind to people like us. We’re women so we can’t own land; we’re Chinese so we can’t open bank accounts; we’re Chinese immigrants so we have no path to citizenship. So many doors are closed to you and me. Youth and beauty can open some doors for us, but youth and beauty do not last; we must use them well before they’re gone.”
One of the greatest of this book’s many strengths is the power and authenticity of its narrative voice. Granted, I’m not a 22-year-old female Chinese-American martial artist who guides souls to their resting places after they die… at least, I don’t think I am, so I can’t speak to its actual authenticity. Yet Boroson channels Li-Lin’s experiences in such interesting and revelatory ways that it felt like I was perceiving an entirely new approach to think and interact with the world. Li-Lin’s journey is rich and teeming with facets of the human experience that are both fascinating and utterly foreign to me. There are spiritual customs and rituals, interactions with various Dao and Buddhist spirits and demons, searches for missing souls, a multi-faceted mystery that unravels in unexpected ways… all these attributes combine with Boroson’s clever, exquisite prose makes this reading experience feel transcendent.
I recall reading The Girl with the Ghost Eyes when it was released, long before I started writing about books for fun. The unique world-building that Boroson had built has always stayed fresh in my mind; it was fascinating how one book could encapsulate what it might feel like to live during that era while also introducing incredible elements of fantasy, horror, action, spirituality, religion, deep character growth, and sheer wonder. The Girl with No Face improves upon this in every sense: the relationships grow more complex, the action scenes are more gratifying, the mysteries are fascinating, and the tragedies cut even deeper. I cannot recall a book that has taken me out of my own head and pulled me this deep into its lore. If you have any interest in any of the topics mentioned above, go grab a copy off NetGalley now, pre-order it off a retailer, or go pick up the first volume of the series.
Adam Weller, 9.2/10
M.H. Boroson gives us a phenomenal sequel in The Girl with No Face. Returning to San Francisco’s Chinatown we once again follow Li-lin, picking up soon after the end of The Girl with Ghost Eyes. We’re treated to Boroson’s excellently researched depictions, a lovingly crafted world that excels at showing normal life for the beautiful thing it is.
There are a great many things to love in The Girl with No Face, and those things begin with the main character, Li-lin. Not only is she incredibly relatable, but she is a wonderful heroine in a world where women struggle to find agency. From her intelligence to her determination, from her love for the weak to her relationship with her father, Li-lin is a unique and engaging character. Boroson has given us a character that is both beautifully realized and also straight up awesome. This is made possible partly because of the way the author gives Li-lin a unique narrative voice and excels at giving an authentic depiction of the realities of life for Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. In addition to the main character, the setting is also brilliantly realized. Boroson obviously has a great love and respect for the cultures and inspirations he is using in his stories, and it shows. He does an excellent job of dealing with the past authentically, but also from a modern perspective. Very well done. The setting is fantastic and magical. It sticks in your mind well after you’ve set down the novel. There are some scenes that are worthy of the finest animated classics. Against these beautifully described backdrops, the author also weaves together a tapestry of backstories for even side character that impact the plot in ways small and large, making each character far more than a set piece. Beyond all this, the magic continues to be fun and interesting. It provides a conduit that draws you deeply into the story. There is something truly otherworldly about the magic in this novel. It’s magical in the fullest sense of that word, allowing the reader to experience something beautiful.
There are few things to criticize in The Girl with No Face. There is a tendency to repeat full names in dialog. I believe this is a cultural element, and for that reason I don’t begrudge it, but it does make the dialog feel stilted at times. There must have been a way to achieve authenticity while allowing the dialog to feel more natural. Another element that could have benefited from some modification, in my opinion, was the end game. There were moments when it seemed to fly by perhaps too quickly, leaving at least one plot thread lacking resolution. The rest of the book is so strong that these criticisms were far from ruining my enjoyment. This is a tremendous novel.
The Girl with No Face is a sequel that improves on nearly everything its predecessor did well. It’s a phenomenal read that I can recommend without hesitation.
Calvin Park, 9/10
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