My take: A little too much Idiot Ball.
I wanted to like M.H. Boroson’s book. Lots of interesting monsters, magic, an intriguing point in history. But….
The first problem is that the author really didn’t wrap his mind around Deliberate Values Dissonance. Li-lin knows prostitution is a common fate for Chinese women in San Francisco, knows the Tongs run it, knows how much power they have in Chinatown. And we’re told over and over that she knows how much social status and power she lacks in relation to everyone else.
Yet we’re supposed to believe she has never considered one of these Tongs might try to force her into prostitution, and has absolutely no plans for how she might defend herself from that fate? It feels like getting a modern teenager’s horrified reaction, not a young Chinese widow who supposedly knows how the world works. This… willful naiveté in the character doesn’t fit everything else we’re told about her.
Then there’s the point where she signs a Tong contract without even reading it. That’s when I really wanted to hurl the book at the wall.
But the most troubling flaw in the story was the social environment around the character. I know urban fantasy protagonists are usually stuck with “one man against the world” situations, but all Li-lin’s human friends that we meet turn out to be enemies, her father makes it clear he’s only helping to save face, and people she ask for help either don’t believe her, try to take advantage of her, or both. (The exception being one guy running a cable car. And what he tries doesn’t work.)
I did like the cat spirit and the little eyeball. But… not one true human ally? That’s a horrible life to be living. I don’t want to be in that protagonist’s shoes, no matter how interesting the setting. So it kicked me right out of the story.
If you can take the emotional torment of picturing yourself as a friendless, betrayed Chinese exorcist in 1898 San Francisco, this book has an interesting setting and intriguing uses of magic. If you’re looking for an emotional pick-me-up of the main character defeating the villain and restoring order to save her friends – you want a different book. Reread Bridge of Birds instead.