When I was updating my Goodreads lists, I noticed something someone said about The Ghost Bride, to the effect of “this story is not about the characters; it’s about the world of the story.” Having just finished the book myself, I have to agree most thoroughly. The world of the dead and the spaces where it connects with the world of the living is fascinating, and told with a lot of interesting detail, which is good, if like me, you don’t know a lot about Chinese folklore. How the dead can live off of offerings that are burnt for them by their still living family, how the bureaucracy of the underworld is about as bad and corrupt as its living counterpart, how people and supernatural beings like dragons and demons interact, and how the dead and the living can still sometimes connect and interact with each other. These are the best parts of the story. I had heard about the concept of ghost-marriage in passing, which is the general basis for the whole story, but it’s all the other details about the time, the place, and the worlds the people lived and believed in.
The supernatural mystery is pretty intriguing (what’s going on with some of the already deceased characters and some of the spirits, the supernatural investigators of humans trying to cheat the system, etc), so it was a little disappointing that the murder mystery in the world of the living got more attention (and a solution- although the solution made sense). Li Lan, the teenage heroine, observes at one point that human-spirit interactions in the stories often have bittersweet or inconclusive endings, so in a way it kind of makes sense that the spirit-world mystery not be fully concluded, but still, I wanna know! I don’t so much care about knowing what Li Lan ends up doing with her life, but I want to know the details about who did what and why in the world of the dead.
The dead and supernaturally-connected characters are definitely also more interesting than the normal human ones. Fan is so easy to suspect and hate, I totally see why Li Lan is intrigued by Er Lang, and Auntie Three is a very touching character; in contrast, Li Lan is a standard teenage girl, her father is useless, none of the Lims are especially interesting either, although Tian Bai and Yan Hon at least have some interesting backstory. The details about their pasts help give them a little more filling out and complexity as characters, which the humans in this book badly need. Amah and Old Wong have enough connection to the spirit world that they have some actual character without the backstory, although since Li Lan doesn’t figure that out for most of the story, they don’t get a lot of attention.
Overall, this was a good story, but it could have been so much more.