It's the end of the 19th century in San Francisco's Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes - the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father - and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.
When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer's ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.
With a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also the poignant story of a young immigrant searching to find her place beside the long shadow of a demanding father and the stigma of widowhood. In a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity, one woman may be the key to holding everything together.
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
M. H. Boroson was obsessed with two things as a young man: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and kung fu movies. He has studied Chinese religion at Naropa University and the University of Colorado and now lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and three cats. The Girl with Ghost Eyes is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Girl with Ghost Eyes
By M. H. Boroson
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 M. H. Boroson
All rights reserved.
Chinatown, San Francisco, 1898
I placed a paper shirt into the furnace. The shirt was painted to resemble dark linen, broad at the shoulders, with buttons down the front. It was a fine shirt, but not too fine, the kind of shirt a hardworking immigrant would wear to dinner. Nothing about it would catch a devil's eye.
The paper shirt warped and blackened. The embers glowed brighter, and the paper shirt caught fire, sending out a surge of heat that pressed against my skin and made me shuffle back. Flames lanced up from the burning paper, smoke rose and ashes fell, and I knew the fire was doing its work. The crackling flame turned the paper into spirit. What had been merely paper among the living became real among the dead. I could imagine my husband's face, his flattered, generous smile. He would look so handsome, wearing his new linen shirt in the city of the dead.
Tonight I came to my father's temple with a sack of paper offerings: shoes, trousers, shirts, horses, pots and pans, a table and three chairs. My husband would want for nothing in the dim lands. I was dedicated to that, as his wife, and as a priestess of the Maoshan lineage.
Maoshan isn't like other traditions. We are ghost hunters, spirit mediums, and exorcists. When creatures out of nightmare trouble Chinatown, people come to the Maoshan for protection. With paper talismans we drive away the spirits, with magic gourds we imprison them, with peachwood swords we destroy them. People fear those who live at the border of the spirit world. They say a haunt of death taints us. They might be right. The decades Father spent hunting devils might be the reason I became what I am.
How bitter it must be for the great sorcerer of Maoshan, to have a daughter like me. Xian Li-lin, the girl with yin eyes, oppressed by visions of the spirit world, doomed to live a brief, painful life. Even the upward tilt of my eyebrows gives me the look of a murderess. And everyone knows a widow brings bad luck. Especially a young widow.
Yet despite our temple's unsavory reputation, a man sat in the Hall of Ancestors, burning a red candle. His forehead was shaved and his hair was braided into a queue down his back, like most Chinese men. People come to the Hall of Ancestors to burn candles and paper offerings for their families. The debt we owe our parents and grandparents does not end simply because they die. By lighting the way for his ancestors, the man was paying homage to his history, to those who came before him. It was a profound practice.
The temple's front door swung open, disturbing me from my reverie. A gust of evening air swept through the temple, making the candles flicker, distorting the smoke from the thick sticks of incense and the furnace. I turned to face the entryway. The door hung open for a moment, and then two men entered.
The first man had white in his hair, which he wore in a plump queue. One of his sleeves dangled, empty, where he was missing an arm. Something about him gave me an impression of weakness, as if the young man at his side were grown and he only a child. But he wasn't young. He was perhaps forty-five years old, Father's age. A bristly white mustache sat on his face and he chewed on his lips. He had a lurching stride — as though he'd known how to move once, but allowed his training to lapse once his arm was lost, and now his balance was upset at every step or turn. It was an awkward, ungainly gait that embarrassed me to watch. The man's eyes had a narrowness that made me think of snakes.
But he had to be somebody important. The young man walking at his side was Tom Wong, son of the most powerful man in Chinatown. I glanced at Tom. With his soft lips and bright eyes, Tom was almost too pretty to be handsome. Seeing him brought back memories. He had been my husband's friend. Tom met my eyes with his own. He touched the brim of his black hat and gave me a warm smile.
Gathering my long hair behind me, I stood to greet the visitors. The sleeves of my yellow robe dangled below my wrists, and I tightened the belt at my waist.
The man in the Hall of Ancestors looked up at Tom Wong and the man with one arm, and a worried look crossed his face. He stood, bowed, and hurried out into the night. His candle stayed lit behind him. The air from the door made it flicker a little.
The one-armed man reached out his hand and lit a cigar at the man's ancestral candle.
I stared at him, my mouth open. The words dried out on my tongue. Such an act of disrespect left me speechless.
Taking quick, nervous puffs from his cigar, he lurched into the central chamber of Father's temple. The temple is open to everyone, but there was something intrusive about this man's presence here. He behaved less like a visitor, more like an invader. His eyes darted around the room, taking in the scrolls and lanterns, the conical red candles, the idols, the names of dead men on the wall.
"You are the Daoshi's daughter?" he asked, his voice weak in his throat.
It was a familiar question. I was also a Daoshi, but my father was a renowned exorcist. I nodded. "My name is Xian Li-lin," I said, "and I am a Maoshan Nu Daoshi of the Second Ordination."
"No higher than the Second?" he asked, and his voice was spiced with contempt.
I lowered my eyes, shamed. Pointing out my inadequacy was unnecessary, cruel, and it stung like a slap across my face. I didn't like the one-armed man. He reminded me of a teenage boy I knew in China, who always sought the company of younger boys. They were the only ones who would treat him with respect.
"Yes," I said, "only the Second. But Father will return some time tonight, and he holds the Seventh Ordination. He will be able to do what you need done."
"Actually," he said, "I am looking for a Sangu."
My eyes widened. The word Sangu means Third Aunt — the unmarried woman, half-crazy, who shrieks at spirits in the night, drinks too much rice wine, and weeps all day. The woman haunted by ghosts and visions, vulnerable to spirit possession. It was a polite term. Supposedly.
Having yin eyes is a curse. It was my secret. How could this man know that I see the spirit world? I went pale at the thought. Not even my father realized. Only my husband, and —
I turned to Tom Wong. "You told him?"
Tom's eyes twinkled, playful and knowing. "It was necessary, Li-lin. This is important."
"What is important?"
"Mr. Liu needs something," he said.
I looked at Tom for a moment, considering his words. Mr. Liu, he said. Tom was of higher station than anyone I knew, and yet he had addressed the man respectfully, which meant I needed to treat him with great respect. No matter how I felt about him.
I took a breath and faced the man with one arm. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Liu?"
He focused his snake eyes on my face. "I have been dreaming of my drowned friend, Shi Jin. He comes to me in dreams. He says he needs someone to bring him a soul passport."
My mouth opened, but I said nothing. The thought sent me reeling. If the dead man needed a passport, it meant that the guards at the gates of Fengdu, the city of the dead, had refused to admit him. Locked out, Shi Jin would be forced to wander forever, a spirit lost without home. No burnt offerings would be able to reach him.
"His corpse?" I asked.
"Lost at sea."
I shook my head. My father could speak a few words over a corpse and the guards would open the gates for its higher soul. But without a corpse, there was only one chance for Shi Jin.
Someone needed to travel to the world of spirits and bring the dead man a passport. But not just anyone could do it. It had to be a woman, and the woman needed to be cursed with yin eyes. It had to be a woman who couldn't shut out the horrors of the spirit world, no matter how hard she tried.
A woman like me.
My yin eyes were my secret, and my shame. And now this man, Mr. Liu, was giving me a chance to use my curse for something positive. And still I hesitated.
"My father," I said. "I should wait for him. He will return some time tonight."
Mr. Liu shook his head. "There can be no waiting," he said. "It has been forty-eight days since Shi Jin died."
I caught my breath. After death, a man has forty-nine days to make it through the gates. Forty-nine days for his family to burn offerings and grieve. If he still has not crossed the Helpless Bridge when forty-nine days have passed, there is no hope for him.
And still I said nothing. I knew how to dance the Steps of Yu and travel the realms, but I couldn't do such a thing without my father's permission.
Tom Wong broke the silence. "Li-lin," he said, his voice gentle on my name, "Mr. Liu is a close friend of my father's, from China."
I glanced at Tom, thinking about his words. A friend of Mr. Wong. Tom's father ran the Ansheng tong. Some would call him a gangster, but the Ansheng tong was so much more than that. It was a benevolent organization that gave support to immigrants and outsiders, people with no family of their own. The Ansheng tong was my father's family, and so it was mine. Mr. Wong was a great man, and he did so much for so many people. Including us. Every good thing in our lives — the temple, Father's job, our home, my immigration — was thanks to Mr. Wong. Father and I owed everything to him.
"If I do this," I said, looking Tom in the eye, "my father will gain face with Mr. Wong?"
Tom answered me with a radiant smile. And with that the decision was made.
I turned to Mr. Liu and saw his eyes on me. He was sizing me up. "Aren't you young for a Sangu?" he asked.
"I am only in my twenty-third year, Mr. Liu," I said, "but I have more training and discipline than most madwomen."
"Li-lin is the right madwoman for the job, Mr. Liu," Tom Wong said with a warm laugh.
Mr. Liu's eyes were focused on me, and they were shrewd, petty, and intense. "Is this an auspicious night for spiritual travel?"
I nodded. "I consulted the almanac this morning, Mr. Liu. The Tong Sheng says that tomorrow is the Night Parade of a Hundred Devils, but tonight there are no adverse influences in the spirit world."
"Well then," said Mr. Liu, and his eyes took on a mean look. "Are peach trees blossoming in your garden?"
Shock rushed through my entire body. He was asking if I was menstruating. The question left me speechless, and I must have turned bright red. Tom's eyes widened in surprise and discomfort. Mr. Liu's question was so rude, the answer so private. I tried to calm myself.
There were legitimate reasons he might ask such a question of me. Menstruating would make it easier for me to cross over to the spirit world, and harder to return. The question was relevant, but I was horrified that he even mentioned it. These were matters I would choose not to discuss. And yet I needed to show respect to my elders, and Mr. Liu was an important man.
I looked down so the men could not see my face, and then I answered him. "No, Mr. Liu, this is not the time of blossoms. Now I shall gather what I need to make the passport."
I came back with the supplies. Father's altar dominated the heart of the large chamber. Colorful silk lanterns hung above it, red, yellow, and blue-green, and the altar was surrounded by bright brocades, candles, idols, and incense — a clutter of magnificence. Five different kinds of fresh fruit were displayed nearby, on copper plates. A painting on the wall showed Guan Gong, god of war and literature, holding his bladed polearm in his right hand. Statues of the Five Ghosts hulked nearby. In warlike postures, they glared from behind black beards.
I crossed to the corner, to the plain wooden crate I used as my altar. I laid my peachwood sword down beside it. Tom Wong and Mr. Liu stood quietly while I lit the lotus-shaped oil lamp on the altar, refreshed the tea and rice in the offering cups, and swirled the water in the dragon bowl.
To make the passport I took a reed brush and wrote Shi Jin's name in black ink on a sheet of yellow rice paper, distorting the Chinese characters into ghostscript. To the left of the name I drew seven small circles in vermilion ink and connected the circles with lines; the circles represented the seven stars of the Northern Bushel. I wrote the four yin trigrams of the Yi Jing along the bottom, the names of Hell King Yanluo and the Grandfathers at the top. At the lower right corner I stamped my chop, printing the passport with my name and lineage.
I lit a match and burned the paper. Fire blackened the passport. Transmuted it into spirit. As the ashes crumbled, the passport took shape in the world of spirits and drifted to the floor.
"Is that all?" Tom Wong asked.
"Not yet," I said, turning to him. I tied a red string to my wrist, feeling the silken cord tighten against my skin. "The soul passport has been sent to the spirit world, but there are no messengers in the lands between. I need to enter a trance and deliver it to Shi Jin by hand."
"Is that dangerous?"
"The spirit world is full of dangers," I said. "But my peachwood sword will protect me, and a red string will guide me back to myself. You'll keep my body safe while I'm in the spirit world, Tom?"
He nodded, and his eyes were filled with encouragement.
Ghosts and goblins prowl the spirit world, and I would not be foolish enough to travel there defenseless. I took a grease pencil and wrote a spell on my peachwood sword, then replaced the sword at my belt. It would cross with me when I entered the world of spirit.
Then I began. Clicking my teeth, I closed my eyes and thought of the sun and the moon. I felt sunlight stream in through the place between my eyebrows, and moonlight through the soles of my feet. I let them radiate within me. Once my skin was filled with shining, I began to dance.
The Pace of Yu would allow me to wander the three realms. I stamped the floor hard with one foot, and dragged the other. I danced the broken, halting steps of Yu the Great, who beat back the floods. Singing, stamping, and dragging, I danced as Yu, who could transform himself into a bear, yet walked with a limp. Yu the king, the sorcerer, nearly a god, who slew the beast with nine heads. His power cascading through me, I danced the same series of limping steps over and over, making intricate magical gestures with my hands.
There was no way to tell when I stopped dancing in my body and began, instead, a dance of spirit, but there it was. I crossed over without knowing it. I stood outside myself, a spirit in the spirit world, inches from my body yet unfathomably far away. The red string was secure around my wrist; it extended through unnatural fog, through impossible angles, back to where my living body stood, swaying, entranced. I had no other anchor.
In spirit I had the same form I had in flesh, my hair long and unbound, wearing the yellow cloth robe of a Daoshi. I had the same skills, abilities, limitations, in spirit as in body. Even my peachwood sword was at my belt, thanks to the spell written on the side. I crossed the room and picked up the spirit passport. It would guide me to Shi Jin. He'd been sending dreams to Mr. Liu, so he couldn't be far. Probably within half a mile.
I let the passport lead me. It pulsed in my right hand, drawing me toward the man whose name was written on it. I went out through the temple door and peered into the night, where the passport drew me. Wind was blowing from the lands of the dead.
I stopped for a moment, taking in the transformed world ahead of me. The sky of the spirit world had never seen the light of the sun, and the drifting clouds glowed a burnished orange in the light of the moon. There was an uncanny beauty to the spirit side of Chinatown, lit by perpetual moonlight, but brighter and more golden than the moon looks from the world of the living.
Beautiful and eerie, the world of spirits would be a terrible place to spend eternity; unable to enter the cycle of birth and death and birth again, and yet unable to establish a home in the lands of the dead.
I stepped outside, crossing the string of protective cloth talismans over the door. I felt the protective spell give way for me as I walked through it, easy as walking through a spider's web, and stepped out into a ghostly mirror of Chinatown. On Dupont Street, immigrants were walking home for the night, or walking to work. They all wore the same nondescript dark clothing, and their braids swished with each step. They had the indistinct look of ghosts, half-there and half-gone, but I knew I was the ghost among them. No one could see me.
From Telegraph Hill, there was the sound of a train chuffing down its tracks. Its steam whistle called and faded into distance. A vegetable seller strolled past, oblivious of me. Baskets of carrots, yams, and leafy greens were balanced on a bamboo pole across his shoulders. This was Chinatown, and it was my world. Such a small world, twelve square blocks in all, yet I seldom ventured outside the six or seven blocks my father protected.
Excerpted from Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. Copyright © 2015 M. H. Boroson. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is fantasy fiction at its most powerful and cutting-edge. The main character is a Daoist priestess named Li-lin in Chinatown at the turn of the century. Li-lin takes her place among Lisbeth, Katniss, and Hermione, unforgettably establishing herself as one of the most nuanced, resilient, BAMF fictional female characters around. That a Woman of Color has been placed at the heart of this visionary Hero's Journey is a fact that should be lost on no one. From the brilliantly established hook and its crisis, the story rapidly plunges the reader into a highly complex world. Li-lin rapidly develops as a reliable and sensitive interpreter and translator of this culturally-immersive paranormal thriller. The story is loaded with Chinese magical rituals which seem to be extremely accurately depicted. Reading the exquisitely written descriptions of these traditional rituals is a rare joy. The dialogue is credible, believable, culturally attuned, and engaging for the reader. From its dizzying beginnings grounded solidly in the conflicts suffered by Li-lin, The Girl with Ghost Eyes soars into a fascinating and gripping story that never ceases to engage and surprise, all the way through to the heartbreaking final resolution. The wonderfully dramatic content is sustained throughout the entire story! The reader never knows who can be trusted or how far, constantly upping the ante of tension and suspense. The predicament grows worse by the minute, the stakes are clear and high, and information is only imparted as it is badly needed. The story is extremely unique and exciting. The heroine is wonderfully developed, thoroughly complex, and powerfully convincing. Her poignant realism as a deprecated widow cements the wildly surreal adventure she embarks upon firmly in the realms of reality and credibility. One “villain” is conflicted about the evil he is helping to perpetrate and therefore multi-dimensional as a dutiful son and inexcusably cruel cad. Why the other villain has elected to persecute this poor Third Aunt/madwoman/priestess seems hard to understand until his need for a body to enact the most humiliating revenge on the heroine’s father is explained. Then the whole story’s genius absolutely shines! The writing is luminous and hauntingly evocative. This plot represents an exceptionally moving depiction of a human being discovering, questioning, and reversing her long-held beliefs, one after another, until the very final moment.
This book made me mad, cheer and frustrated each in turn. I cannot recommend this book enough. I read in one sitting.