Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.
She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
TITLE: Black Water Sister
AUTHOR: Zen Cho
PUBLISHER: Recorded Books
LENGTH: 384 pages (11 hours 37 minutes)
Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s).
Jess has returned to Malaysia, adjusting to life with her extended family rather than only having her parents around. She frequently doesn't know what the social expectations are, and feels overwhelmed by the weight of all the unsaid things she "should" have just grown up knowing if she and her parents had never left for America when she was a child. When she starts dealing with spirits and gods after Ah Ma possesses her, she's even more out of her depth. The worldbuilding and characterization blend together, as most of what Jess is learning deals with a person or being and how to act around them. The first half was fine, but the second half is where this really shines. In the first part Jess gets a basic idea of what's going on, but then things start to go very badly and she has to adapt quickly with incomplete information. One of my favorite things is how Ah Ma's motivations seem simple but strange early one, then turn into this complex tangle, only to be completely understandable by the end as Jess uncovers long-buried or never acknowledged secrets in her quest to get her life back to normal and the god out of her life.
Jess is gay, with a (newly) long-distance girlfriend. Their relationship gets strained by the distance, suddenly reduced contact, and Jess's decision to not tell her any of the very weird things that have started happening to her. When she first heard Ah Ma she thought she was going crazy. Once it became clear that the voice was an actual ghost trying to get her to do something to help a god, Jess felt like she was too far in to start saying something now. An additional issue is that her girlfriend is out as gay but Jess isn't out to anyone who might get the information to her family. Now that she's surrounded by her family and her head is filled with Ah Ma, the slices of the day where Jess feels safe to be herself are getting smaller and smaller. It's a very relatable portrayal of a fracturing relationship, frequently on Jess's mind but not taking over the narrative.
The audiobook performer is excellent. I love the ending, it gets things to a new status quo without attempting to fix absolutely everything that's wrong, keeping some of the messiness of life.
Graphic/Explicit CW for kidnapping, blood, violence.
Moderate CW for cursing, racism, toxic relationship, sexual harassment, sexual assault, homophobia, vomit, injury detail, death.
Minor CW for ableist language, domestic abuse, alcohol, medical content, cancer, parental death.