Hating the main character or characters in a novel is perhaps the worst thing that can happen between a reader and a book. Characters, above all else, drive a story forward, and if you don’t like them, well, you aren’t apt to like their story. That isn’t to say a character needs to be “good,” for evil characters can be compelling too; you just have to care. In the case of The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson, I couldn’t do that.
And the worst part is, I don’t really know why.
Li-lin is a Chinese immigrant living in the late 1800s. She’s a widower, the daughter of a powerful Daoshi exorcist who keeps Chinatown safe from demons, and cursed with “yin eyes,” or the ability to see the spirit world and the terrors that thrive there. She’s a bit headstrong, knows some kung-fu, and honestly, has little wrong with her as far as characters go. She’s certainly well-rounded enough, yet I just couldn’t connect with her.
Early on, she’s asked to deliver a passport to a ghost in the spirit realm, and she does this willingly; however, she’s betrayed and trapped in this spirit world. I expected her to stay there for most of the novel akin to Richard’s trip through London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but The Girl with Ghost Eyes surprised me by keeping that section relatively short. Instead, the novel expands its scope, turning towards the politics of two rival gangs in Chinatown and their views on a fast-changing world towards more Western ideals. One gang embraces the change, the other does not, and there’s enough backstabbing and wicked plots to keep things interesting.
I knew a bit of this information going in thanks to a handy plot summary, and it all seems like the recipe for a fun urban fantasy novel. I didn’t have any fun though.
Perhaps it was the writing style, which isn’t exactly vivid or engaging. The Girl with Ghost Eyes is written in first-person past, and first person isn’t the easiest style to work with. Li-lin never breaks character, yet the writing itself only ever feels serviceable. Descriptions are kept light, making even the scariest of demons seem still and lifeless, and words and thoughts are often repeated more than they need to be.
For example, when Li-lin is first trapped in the spirit world, the trapper begins to carve a talisman into her stomach so an evil spirit might possess her. Certainly this is a problem warranting both fear and outrage, but the section oversells it all, repeating the talisman carving multiple times and Li-lin’s anger even more. The event becomes a driving plot point for her character, but instead of being subtle, it’s brought up almost once a chapter.
It’s certainly not Terry Goodkind levels of repetition, but it is annoying nonetheless. It also doesn’t help the already bland prose.
I will say, the writing style actually worksquite well for the various fight sequences. Its no-nonsense approach compliments the kung-fu battles, with their various kicks, punches, dodges, rolls, and minor spellwork.
Li-lin herself is headstrong and not always good at thinking things through, and for the most part, that stays consistent. However, it gets annoying at points, especially when it came to which rules she’s willing to break. In one scene, she’s told to do something she doesn’t want to do and sets off to do it anyways, despite it causing heartache. Yet in another scene, she’s forbidden to do something obviously stupid and then heads off to do that stupid thing anyways, at the cost of her own well being.
Her choices never really feel out of character, especially given the customs/culture she’s operating under, yet it’s annoying regardless.
There is a certain level of culture shock that comes with reading a novel about a Chinese woman set in the 1800s. Li-lin is not treated well—primarily because she’s a woman—and while there’s plenty of historical accuracy there, it all still felt strange. For example, her father, who she always describes as a great man, outright tells her he wishes he had a son. Li-lin’s reaction isn’t outrage but shame, because she knows her being a woman brings dishonor to her family.
On a historical front, I get it. This kind of thought process was real; however, on a storytelling front, I just couldn’t buy into it. I don’t know why though. I’ve read plenty of science fiction and fantasy novels with foreign (and often purposefully strange) worlds and customs and bought into those readily. It makes no sense!
Culture shock aside, I do consider the setting to be an absolute positive in The Girl with the Ghost Eyes. Firstly, the fantasy genre, both urban and regular, has historically been whitewashed and filled primarily with men. To get a novel that breaks both of those molds is special. Li-lin, my gripes notwithstanding, is a badass with some fairly complex motivation about her. She makes some stupid choices, but she also makes some very hard decisions, and she’s honorable enough to face those consequences.
Like I said, I really don’t know why I didn’t find her compelling.
Secondly, I’m a huge fan of religious myth in all its forms, and this book was my first real taste of Chinese mythology. I loved all the ghosts, lore, rituals, and magic found within. The way Daoism treats the afterlife is seriously cool, and I’m tempted to grab some actual books on the subject for a deeper understanding.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is populated with demons and spirits, some evil, some not, and they became my favorite characters. There’s a two-tailed talking cat who likes to fight, a walking eyeball that’s almost posh in his mannerisms, talking seagulls, and even a vegetarian tiger! They’re all quite fun, for the most part, and I’d have liked to see more of them. To be honest, I found their characters much more compelling for one reason or another, especially the tiger.
On paper, The Girl with the Ghost Eyes is a good book in all but its bland writing style. That’s a big knock against it sure, but it really does have a lot in its favor. However, I didn’t like it. There are big problems like the ones I mentioned, little ones like Li-lin’s dad being so powerful that the author has to keep him confined to a hospital for most of the book so he doesn’t single-handedly solve the plot, and probably others I’m forgetting.
Yet there’s a lot it does right.
So, I’ll end this review like I’ve ended others of this type: If this book sounds like something you might enjoy, head to Amazon and read some sample pages. If the writing style suits you fine, then yeah, pick it up. If not, well, there’s always Niel Gaiman’s Neverwhere to fill this kind of urban fantasy void.