The Girl with Ghost Eyes might be the first cultural fantasy I’ve read.
M. H. Boroson’s novel is packed with plenty of history too. The story is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the end of the nineteenth century. And there are references to legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and events like the California Gold Rush.
But it’s the wealth of cultural detail that makes this book so unique.
The protagonist is a Chinese American immigrant named Xian Li-lin. She’s daughter to Chinatown’s preeminent Daoshi, a Daoist priest who taught Li-lin how to use their lineage’s ancient magic. According to Boroson’s afterword, the spells “Li-lin and her father perform … make use of talismans, incantations, deities, magical hand gestures, ritual dances, peachwood, burnt paper offerings, and astrological almanacs” whose “every single detail … is closely based on reality.”
The ghosts Li-lin sees also draw heavily from Chinese folklore. Li-lin has yin eyes, a mixed blessing that allows her to view the spirit world. Throughout the book, she encounters haunting specters like the Yaozhizhu, goblin spiders Boroson describes as black fists with the faces of human babies and the legs of spiders. (My favorite ghost was Mr. Yanqiu, the spirit of an eyeball who enjoys steeping himself in a cup of warm water.)
And as Li-lin seeks to stop the creation of a particularly monstrous ghost, Boroson slips in details about gender dynamics and race relations, furthering his goal of “exploring the lives of working-class Chinese American immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century.” The research behind The Girl with Ghost Eyes is obvious and impressive.
There were times when I felt like the scholarship slowed the story, though. For example, in the middle of the book, Li-lin spends a lot of time searching for allies, a quest that feels more like an excuse for the author to explore Chinatown than a crucial plot point that advances the narrative. I also found the writing inelegant at times.
But I appreciate how immersive Boroson’s world is. And in addition to all the carefully crafted culture, there’s a ton of action. Did I mention that Li-lin’s father also taught her kung fu? I’d love to read more fantasies in this vein.