The Ghost Bride

Yangsze Choo
The Ghost Bride Cover

The Ghost Bride


I wanted to like this book so much. For one, it deals with a culture I'm not very familiar with, particularly one that is set in the 19th century and a story that focuses on death and its rituals. I wasn't even all that bothered by the fact that the book is YA, as I've promised myself that this year, I would give a book a chance rather than simply pre-judging it and discarding it. It also helps that I've somehow managed to sign up to about a dozen different reading challenges, but if it's one thing I've learned, it's that if a book will fit multiple categories in these attempts, I will definitely count it!

Choo's novel follows Li Lan, a girl in 19th century Malaysia, who is asked by her debt-ridden father to become a ghost bride, the wife of a recently-deceased young man from the esteemed Lim family. While an unusual request, Li Lan considers this carefully, as she wishes to marry another man, despite the wealth and grandeur of the Lim family. Soon however she finds herself drawn more and more into the ghost world, a place where dream and reality mingle, a place of terror, temptation and delight. Caught in a conspiracy with far-reaching consequences, Li Lan needs to uncover the truth before she is trapped in the ghost world forever.

Now, make no mistake about this, The Ghost Bride is a historical romance. Something that I wouldn't really have minded, had it not been for how absolutely bone-headed Li Lan actually is. For a protagonist, she has very limited agency, she makes mistake after mistake, trusting virtual strangers with her secrets even after encountering evidence that not all ghosts are nice and being completely surprised when they turn out to be selfish or betray her. Now, the first couple of times, I could actually forgive her (she is, after all, only a teenager), but she consistently does it, all the way to the end. To the point where I completely lost any sympathy I had felt for her, which was little to begin with. You see, Li Lan swings between being painfully obtuse and stubborn and taking forever to explain things over and over. The plot is slow going (not something that would normally bother me), but it's constantly interrupted with asides about Malay or Chinese culture and habits, asides that really pulled me out of the story.

The instalove is painful to witness (and again, part of it I would excuse because she is barely eighteen) but it becomes the sole driving force of the plot and it's not deep or interesting enough to actually carry it. If anything, it's just a nuisance and I became more and more annoyed as Choo insisted on making it Li Lan's whole purpose in this. The foreshadowing is also risible, not just because I was able to view the twists from a mile away, but because Choo insists on making sure I am completely aware that things won't go as planned, with Li Lan saying things like, "I would regret this" and similar. When she's not trying to explain traditions to other people (who even talks like that?), she insists on reiterating the same thing over and over again. For a book clocking in at just under 400 pages, it's basically stretching everything out to an unnecessary degree. When she's not feeling sorry for herself, Li Lan takes it in turn to sob, faint, get herself captured by everyone and disregard any kind of sensible advice. It ends up being wearing and the great secret in the ghost world comes to a big fat nothing (the one in the corporeal world isn't much better either).

For a lot of different reasons, I wanted to like, even love, The Ghost Bride. It portrays a different culture, with its own beliefs and death rituals, it's written by someone who understands that culture, and yet it just comes across as so static and boring, with characters who make the worst kinds of decisions. The resolution, when it does come, is quick, as if even Choo couldn't really think up a proper answer. I found the ending to be lacking, with a lot of unanswered questions, rushed through for its happily ever after, without any kind of growth in Li Lan's character arc. I couldn't see that she had changed all that much from the beginning of the book and that, more than anything, is what really disappointed me here.

The Ghost Bride is a book filled with potential, interesting ideas and a great background, but it all comes to nothing, as insubstantial as the paper puppets burned for the dead. If you're looking for an easy YA paranormal romance set in a different culture, go for it. If you're not, you're much better off skipping this.