M. H. Boroson’s debut novel, The Girl With Ghost Eyes, does not waste any time getting to the action. Within the first few pages, the title character Li-lin is projecting herself out of her body to enter the realm of ghosts, where she must fight off possession with kung fu and a magic sword. A few pages later, she’s looking for help from demons parading through Chinatown, and bribing a two-tailed cat spirit with fish oil and paper mice. The pace never slows, offering a constant stream of strange characters, dire threats, and heroic actions that makes the book a compelling page-turner.
Set in 19th-century San Francisco, the story follows Li-lin as she attempts to save her father and entire community from the machinations of the bitter son of a local gang leader and a sorcerer who specializes in forbidden rituals. Boroson lists Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an influence on his work. In many ways the book follows the structure of a season of Joss Whedon’s show: A heroine facing the possibility of an apocalyptic event has to take her own powers to the limit while getting by with a lot of help from her friends.
Unfortunately, Li-lin, like Buffy, is a badass who spends too much time whining about how powerless she feels and the burdens of her responsibility—to her father and home, rather than some mystic destiny. She’s even more frustrating in the later chapters, which she spends dwelling on something that’s obviously not going to happen, detracting from the fun of watching her scale buildings with help of hundreds of seagulls or battling a monstrously large skeleton stomping through the city.
Brighter points include the cast Boroson builds around Li-lin: a woman who secretly practices a wild form of magic suppressed by China’s more mainstream Daoists, an ancient tiger trying to achieve enlightenment and escape his own violent nature by living as a Buddhist monk, and a gambling-obsessed gang leader willing to bet an army on the outcome of a game. They form a tapestry that combines myth with a history of China and the Chinese-American immigrant experience. Boroson also shows the strength of his world building when it comes to laying out the rules and hierarchy of Daoist magic, offering a level of detail reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson’s work.
Spirited Away is one of Boroson’s favorite films; he nicely channels Hayao Miyazaki’s powerful visual imagination when creating characters like a three-eyed seagull spirit who has visions of the future, and a tiny man with an eyeball for a head who likes warming up by resting in cups of tea. Li-lin considers her ability to see the spirits that walk among Chinatown’s humans a curse because that’s what her father has told her. But her talent is a boon for the reader when she describes the huge diversity of creatures she witnesses, such as the shoppers at a bazaar that moves to an alley of a different Chinatown each night so that mortals won’t stumble across its location.
Although he shows potential, Boroson’s writing could be sharper. His attempts to reference relevant history like the Chinese Exclusion Act are as awkward as a TV show trying to wedge in an educational message, though he does better at explaining the origins of Chinese hatchet gangs. His prose can get repetitive, as when Li-lin mentions an opponent’s attempts to put her off balance twice in as many paragraphs. He also is guilty of a problem some authors of superhero stories face, writing himself in a corner by making a character so powerful he could handle the entire crisis, and then having to come up with a litany of ways to keep him out of the action so the hero Boroson wants to actually focus on can save the day.
Boroson’s world manages to feel rich while leaving plenty of room for development. While it works as a self-contained story, The Girl With Ghost Eyes offers plenty of hooks for sequels by hinting at more terrible enemies, sparks of romance, and the power Li-lin could gain by working with her new allies. With a bit more polish on his exciting concepts, Boroson could be a bright new voice in fantasy.