A historical novel with a distinct fantasy twist, Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride is one of the most original YA books of 2013. Living with her father in 1890's Malaya, Li Lan receives a marriage proposal… from a man already dead. Li Lan turns down the proposal to be a ghost bride, but starts to receive visitations from the deceased Tian Ching. Li Lan is determined to free herself from his influence and pursue the real object of her affections, Tian Bai, but help from a medium casts her from her body, and Li Lan is forced to enter the underworld to understand where Tian Ching is getting his power. However, this is not the underworld as western readers will know it. This is the Chinese afterlife, where souls wait in ghost cities composed of burnt funeral offerings.
The world that Choo creates is simultaneously dazzling and unsettling. Her world made of paper and wooden houses is reminiscent of the Suburbs of the Dead from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials with its languid, lost feel. Yet this setting is even more alien and filled with vengeful spirits. Where living mourners burn paper servants for their loved ones, in the world of the dead rustling, blank faced servants act on the wishes of their deceased masters.
Choo paints this eerie place vividly, and creates an equally vibrant supporting cast. From Tian Bai and Tian Ching, the rivals for Li Lan's affections, to Er Lang, the mysterious and beautiful man who can see Li Lan's spirit and attempts to help, to Yan Hong, the mysterious cousin of Tian Ching who runs the Lim household, this book is crammed with different histories, vendettas and dashed hopes. At times these stories can interweave so much that they become a little tangled, but this is otherwise a thrilling read.