This is a collection of Urban Fantasy stories – “Urban Fantasy” in the more traditional (think Charles de Lint etc.) sense of magic spilling into everyday life rather than the more recent (think Charlaine Harris) of sexy vampires and werewolves. It also is a collection of stories by a Malaysian author, and the tales are deeply steeped not only in Malaysian folklore but also in the languages of Malaysia – a very distinctive way of using English which is generously peppered with (presumably) Malaysian terms, not to mention all kinds of exotic foodstuffs. I was glad to be reading this on a Kindle, as that way I could at least easily look up the latter, but of course I did not get very far with the words from Malay that way; so be prepared to be puzzled a lot or have frequent recourse to the internet search engine of your choice.
This might have come across as an affectation, the real world equivalent of third-rate Fantasy authors splashing made-up words all over their texts to make them look more exotic, but you never get that feeling reading Spirits Abroad: For one thing, Zen Cho is emphatically not a third-rate writer, but emphatically first-rate and her generous use of Malayan terms is actually a case on point – even if you do not the meaning of the words she uses (and I admit to having often been too lazy to look them up), there is a rhythm to her sentences, a rhythm that is slow and easy but none the less compelling for that, and a melody to her sounds, a melody made of vivid and intense tone colours (and on a side note, the cover of the e-book version of this collection really fits the stories perfectly).
It all combines to a very distinct, unique narrative voice that remains identifiable and close to itself even through various narrators. In fact that is the single small niggle I have towards this collection – the narrators, in particular those in first person, always seem in danger of becoming indistinguishable, of running together in the larger auctorial voice. It never quite happens (hence this is a really minor thing) but I at least felt there was a potential problem here. In any case, if one was to describe Zen Cho’s narrative voice, I think the term that will most likely come first to one’s mind is “charming” – there is such an obvious delight the narratives take in themselves, in the sheer act of their telling, the spinning out of their tales in this colourful, highly rhythmical manner that it seems impossible for any reader to not become enchanted by that voice and then enthuse about it in turn.
So far so remarkable – but what I think makes this collection really stand out and lifts it from the merely very good to the truly excellent, is that Zen Cho somehow manages to use that charming voice – which seems made for cute, lovely stories – to tell some very dark and occasionally even gruesome tales, the apparent innocence of the narrator’s tone heightening the haunting effect these stories have on the reader. While there are several quite wonderful stories in Spirits Abroad that are funny and heartwarming, the one that tend to stick in the reader’s memory (this reader’s, anyway) are the ones where the charm is layered over or shot through with a darker tone, like “The First Witch of Damansara” or “The House of Aunts”. The latter one in particular (according to the author, her take on Twilight – and in retrospect, you can see where she is coming from there, although I never would have noticed just from the story, it is just so different) has a huge emotional impact and I can understand why that is apparently the most popular of her stories.
This was a really enjoyable collection, and I’m eager to read more by Zen Cho – she has a novel coming out in September, described by Naomi Novik as “An enchanting cross between Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, full of delights and surprises.” Needless to say, it went on my preorder list straight away.