Li Lan is a Malay Chinese young woman. Instead of training her in the womanly arts of sewing, etc., her father—a recluse—educates her. Her mother died when she was a young girl of the same smallpox epidemic that scarred her father. Li Lan escaped with only one small pox behind her ear.
Once well-off financially, the family slowly slips into decline as Li Lan's father loses his wealth. The man who owns the debt has a son and heir, recently dead, and this spoiled young man's ghost returns during the night to haunt his mother's dreams, and demands that Li Lan become his Ghost Bride. Her father leaves the decision up to her, and she declines. But young Lim haunts her, the man she was betrothed to finds himself in the position of having the betrothal broken so she can marry young Lim, and Li Lan accidentally overdoses on an opium medication to forestall the dreams of young Lim.
She ends up travelling out of body through the realm of the dead where she finds her mother, and barely escapes back to the living only to discover her body has been taken over by another spirit who will not let her back.
I found this book to be well-written, and great fun. I've heard of Ghost Brides, but this is the first time I've read a story about one. I loved the trip through the Plains of the Dead, and how the dead 'lived.' The story did drag a little in the middle, but not for long.
Li Lan is not the heroine of an American novel. She is the heroine of a Chinese novel set in colonial Malaya in 1893. She has lived a sheltered life, with few life experiences on which to draw, the story takes place before radio and instant communication, and all her knowledge has come from her father, a badly scarred and reclusive opium addict, her amah who raised her mother and then herself, and the house staff.
She only wants to rid herself of the ghost of young Lim so she can marry her betrothed, Tian Bai, who by the end of the book is betrothed to another. The only friend she has to call upon for help is Er Lang, a stranger who always hides his face.
Part fairy tale, part murder mystery (who murdered young Lim? And why?), a coming of age story, and a damn fine read! When you read this book, be sure to read the notes at the end, they, too are interesting and well written.