100 Ghost Soup, by Robert Chansky
Synopsis: An orphan adopted by a fox-spirit becomes a pawn in a centuries-old plot to save a village of ghosts from damnation.
Personal Note: I am familiar with Rob Chansky, I see him a few times each year and we often critique each other’s work. I do my best to be impartial in this review, but my personal liking of him invariably must color some things.
Book Review: It’s been said that you can’t read a piece of good fiction without getting a feel for its author’s personality. This is never more true than when you actually know the author in person. You can read read Fifth Season and get a sense of simmering anger and the Will To Justice. You can read The Martian or HPMoR and get a feeling of optimism and joie de vivre. But those are impressions. When you read a piece by someone you know personally, it’s surprisingly like having them in the room with you, engaging in conversation.
100 Ghost Soup is like this, and if there’s one word I would use to describe Rob, it’s Contemplative. Reading this novel is much like slowly building a giant pot of rich soup, adding in bits and simmering and stirring. It is comfortable and warm, and spends a fair bit of time ruminating.
This has both good and bad effects. On the good side, there is a lot of wonderfully evocative prose. Turns of phrase that linger in your mind. A gorgeously realized ghost town that makes you feel like your inside it, and memorable characters. The plot resolution is delightfully trick-sy and wordplay/loophole-ish in EXACTLY the way you feel a trickster archetype would hoodwink the gods and laugh at them afterwards. It feels foxy.
In addition, it really captures the alien afterlife of a Very Different culture, the same way Ghost Bride did. It’s bizarre and fascinating for someone as steeped in the Western tradition as myself to read of a heaven that is very much a spiritual bureaucracy, often set in opposition to the material world. This heaven has their own affairs to concern themselves with, and doesn’t have time for your petty mortal whinings. It feels terrifyingly indifferent to me, TBH.
On the minus side, the plot does move rather slowly, in part because it is so contemplative. The denouement in particular went on for too long. More unfortunate is that the protagonist (Jimo) doesn’t really do much of anything. He is a pawn, along for the ride and witnessing what’s happening without any hand in the events. The lack of agency makes him forgettable and makes me wonder why this story wasn’t told from someone else’s perspective.
As if to emphasize how little agency Jimo has, he’s written as extremely naive, to the point that one wonders if he suffers from a disorder of some sort (No, you do NOT engage in blood rituals with a stranger you just met in an abandoned train station in a ghost town, no matter HOW rude it would be to not give him tea, are you freakin’ kidding me??). I suspect this is to hand-wave some of the more implausible tricks Jimo falls for, such as his extremely unlikely return to Beijing after the ping-pong match. I kinda consider that cheating, and I don’t particularly enjoy super-naive characters.
All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I don’t regret it. The conceit of my reviews is “would I recommend the book to myself-from-one-month-ago,” and that throws me for a tiny loop on this one. I still would recommend it to me personally, because I know Rob and reading this added an extra bit of enjoyment due to that fact. (In related news, I highly encourage people to go see local bands if there’s a friend-of-a-friend in the band, and to otherwise participate in art and activities on the local level with people they can interact with in meatspace. Highly fulfilling!) However if I were to consider a person just like me but who didn’t actually know Rob, that doesn’t apply. And for someone with my tastes, this book is a bit too slow, and the protag a bit too non-agenty, to really be considered great. It’s still a perfectly fine book, but given how little time for reading there is, I have to go with Not Recommended.
As an additional note, the climax contains the best sensory description of eating delicious food that I’ve ever seen in print. It made me really want some of that soup.
Book Club Review: Basically everything I said in the Book Review goes for the Book Club Review as well, writ slightly larger. It makes for some fine chat, especially about trickster spirits and cultural differences. And a bit of talk will go into trying to decipher the twisty illusions near the middle. It feels like something that could be discussed over a friendly dinner. :) But again, there’s nothing truly compelling that makes me want to grab the person sitting next to me and say “Oh man, I really gotta bring up Thing X!” So again, with feelings of warmth and not to say it’s bad or anything – Not Recommended.