Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book Review: 100 Ghost Soup

Hundred Ghost Soup
by Robert Chansky

From the official description:
A Beijing orphan is nearly eighteen. He wants a family and a name, if only for a while. He hacks adoption papers to get them.

He also gets: a long train ride into an empty station in a ghost town. Ghosts. Their leaders, calling themselves Mr. and Mrs. Vulpin, are his new parents. They are illusion-casting fox spirits, glamorous, clever, and trapped. They need him to free themselves of the ghosts.

Our hero works for them and accepts their flaws so long as they pretend to be a family. But then he discovers their wonderful meals are illusory. Are the Vulpins up to no good? And the People’s Republic of China will never allow spirits to possess a town. To save them all, he must travel back to Beijing, rifle the Politburo’s files, and find a Minister’s secrets. When he kindles the wrath of the People’s Liberation Army and the Minister of Fate himself, he must penetrate layers of illusions, decide whom he can trust, and learn to cook.

And then there is the matter of the soup’s main ingredient: him.
I just finished reading this about two weeks ago, and I think it's one of those books that really deserves a signal boost.

Unlike most urban fantasy books (which is broadly how I'd classify this one), Hundred Ghost Soup is set in China. The author handles the setting convincingly (at least to me, a white American who's never set foot in China), striking a nice balance between keeping the reader aware that this isn't a Western setting, and still making the setting comprehensible - without overexplaining. The plot is nicely layered and moves along quickly; there are ghosts, illusions, dreams, and even bits of reality here and there, but while it's sometimes confusing these things are never disruptive. Trying to figure out which is which, in fact, is a large part of the story's charm. The main character is likable and sympathetic, but still flawed and very, very human; the supporting characters are also handled well and fairly. From a technical standpoint, the book is excellent: unlike a great many self-published or even small press books (and I believe Hundred Ghost Soup is the latter) on the market, the editing is all but flawless. I simply didn't see any typos, mis-used words, incorrect grammar, or any of the dozen other kinds of technical mistakes that tend to yank me out of the story and disrupt my reading.

This is a very much a coming-of-age book. It's the story of a young man striking out on his own, using his skills and acquiring new ones, learning more about himself, and finding his place in the world. That said, the approach is anything but typical; Hundred Ghost Soup is fun, funny, sometimes eerie, and often fascinating. If you're looking for an enjoyable, unusual read ten I'd highly recommend giving this one a try. (I enjoyed reading it as an adult, but it would be perfectly suitable reading for high school or even middle school.)

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