REVIEW: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

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 practised, 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.

Warnings: mentions of suicide, sexism, love triangles

Category: M/F

The Ghost Bride is a paranormal romance novel set in late 19th century Malaysia. It’s a rather hauntingly beautiful book that winds it’s way through Chinese mythology and afterlife lore, as a young girl is haunted by a demanding ghost suitor and hell-bent on solving the mysteries that keep their families intertwined. Recently adapted into a Netflix original series, this is a story that combines romance, political intrigue, family drama, murder mystery all set on the backdrop of a journey through the chilling realm of the undead.

WRITING
Told in first person, Li Lan’s tale is a reflective exploration of her experiences encountering the supernatural. The plot involves the alleged murder of the ghost that is haunting her, Lim Tian Ching, who believes that his jealous cousin Tian Bai is secretly behind his death. Regardless of the particulars of this supposed murder plot, Li Lan is repelled by the selfish and entitled Lim Tian Ching, and wants nothing to do with him. But when her soul is accidentally separated from her body she has no choice but to journey to the Planes of the Dead and try to figure out the mystery. The writing is very thoughtful and evocative, keeping you tied to Li Lan’s perceptions and experiences, and the author does an excellent job at making the story engaging. There are twists at every turn, and nobody is what they seem. But despite the gripping drama of the tale, the prose itself has a lovely soft pace to it. It is at once a beautiful, elegant, and at times poetic look at Li Lan and her life, keeping the narrative feeling dreamlike even when it’s at it’s most harrowing.

EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT
The book does a stunning amount to flesh out it’s characters, both protagonists as well as antagonists. Lim Tian Ching is a wonderful villain, and you grow to despise him almost immediately. He’s very fun to hate, and engulfs each scene he is present in in such a spirited way. Li Lan herself is, of course, our POV character and the story is told exclusively from her perspective. Her character begins the story very sheltered and naive, a young girl only just coming into adulthood who has, due to having a fairly indulgent father, not really learned a lot about the expected roles of women within her society. As such she can be both refreshingly headstrong as well as innocently foolish, but her character matures over the course of her extraordinary journey and experiences. I found her incredibly relatable and charming.

Other characters, such as her competing suitors Tian Bai and Er Lang, were also phenomenally well portrayed, and with a great deal of charisma. Er Lang, especially, was my favourite character and I loved it every time he waltzed across the page. I will say that I wish that there hadn’t necessarily been so much of a love triangle myself, but it wasn’t used much for angst and drama’s sake and instead felt organic and natural to the progression of both her adventure and her character arc.

WORLDBUILDING
As most of it takes place in the ghost realms, the book truly does a lot of worldbuilding and exploring of mythology and spiritual traditions. The systems of the afterlife, the bureaucracy of the courts of hell, the lives of the ghosts that don’t manage to pass on into reincarnation, all of them are explored with pizzazz and delicate detail. Li Lan slowly uncovers more and more of the world of the afterlife and learns more about the peoples that populate it. The book paints a stunning picture of other-worldliness, and it was absolutely enchanting getting to move through it with Li Lan. It also brings to life Li Lan’s quiet life in the city of Malacca as well, sparing no details about the various cultures that had settled there and how they all effected one another. Thus the book is a beautiful little window into not only life in 19th Century Malaysia, but also in the beliefs held by the peoples there, creating a vibrant environment for it’s characters. You feel steeped in a rich cultural tapestry over the course of the narrative, and I loved every moment spent within it’s pages.

STEAMINESS
This is, unfortunately, not an explicit book. It certainly had a few beautiful moments of eroticism and physical intimacy where the characters might have had a sexual encounter, but the book never gives Li Lan more that brief little tastes of potential pleasure. That is to say, there is kissing and heavy petting in this book but nothing farther, as all involved have far too much honour and propriety to allow them more than that. Li Lan is, of course, a blushing virgin, and that innocence is partially what makes her relatable, but I would have liked to see her shed that as she became more worldly in other ways as well. Still, despite the lack of any sexual content, there is indeed a lovely amount of emotional and sexual tension between her and her three different suitors, and an energy with each of them that felt unique from each other. Lim Tian Ching was repulsive and exuded a predatory feeling in his advances, while Tian Bai was restrained and proper. Er Lang was wild and a bit more of a playboy, but ultimately kind and charming. The book will please fans of romance, especially supernatural romance, and while I would have enjoyed a few sex scenes I was satisfied with it’s teasing glimpses at sensuality.

Altogether a stunningly beautiful tale of mythology and romance, well written and gorgeously rendered. The Netflix adaption is also quite charming, though many of the details have been heavily altered, making it a somewhat different story. Ghost Bride is well worth the read for it’s aesthetic quality alone, to say nothing of it’s sprawling and engaging characters and plot, and I highly recommend it.

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