It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.The star of this book is not Li Lan. It is not her book; the focal point is not the very mild romance, it is not the mystery. The overwhelming show-stealer is the setting, the background, the history, the superstition and traditional beliefs of turn-of-the-century Malaya.I am Asian myself and I maintain my love of Asian culture despite having immigrated to the United States. I know a lot about the region and its history; for me, this book feels like going home. It is my equivalent of chicken soup (or rather, in the context of the book, herbal "chicken soup and cordyceps for stamina"). The setting is spectacularly beautiful, and so achingly familiar.This is Malaya, or as we know it now, Malaysia. The port city is Malacca. The year is 1893. The history of the area is so interesting, and is the very definition of intermingling. I loved the amalgamation of cultures, of beliefs, of nationalities. The vivid setting and the descriptions of the setting and atmosphere are nothing short of spectacular. Every aspect of life in Malaya is cultivated from a mixture of the numerous cultures that form the heterogeneous society of this vibrant port city. Women's clothing vary from the Chinese cheong sam to the lower-class sam foo, to traditional Chinese formal wear, to the Indonesian baju panjang and kebaya. The food are mouth-wateringly portrayed, from a different mix of nationalities and their respective cooking traditions, and there are so many instances of it! Even if you do not start out hungry, you will end up starving by the time you finish this book.They had all my favorite kinds of kuih—the soft steamed nyonya cakes made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with palm sugar or shredded coconut. There were delicate rolled biscuits called love letters and pineapple tarts pressed out of rich pastry. Bowls of toasted watermelon seeds were passed around, along with fanned slices of mango and papaya.The author is of Malaysian descent, and her portrayal of the country shows her in-depth knowledge of Malaysia and its wonderfully rich history. It also shows clearly and understandably, her love for it. I also grew to love the setting and the country as if it were my own. It is beautifully portrayed, with tremendous respect for all the cultures and social classes represented. For me, the true star of the book is its setting, both of it. The real world, and the ghostly one. The superstitions, myths, legends, all are wonderfully told and portrayed.I had seen some of the painted hell scrolls that depicted the gruesome fates awaiting sinners. There were people being boiled in oil or sawed in half by horse and ox-headed demons. Others were forced to climb mountains of knives or were pounded into powder by enormous mallets. Gossips had their tongues ripped out, hypocrites and tomb robbers were disemboweled. Unfilial children were frozen in ice. The worst was the lake of blood into which suicides and women who had died in childbirth or aborted their children were consigned.I was utterly immersed and fascinated by the setting, and it feels so satisfying to read about something about which I'm familiar. This book would be even more fascinating to someone without a deep understanding of the culture. There is so much to be learned, so much to be gleaned from within this beautifully written book.Li Lan is a beautiful 17 year old girl, hidden away during the most important years of her life. As a young woman of the upper class, from a good, old family, Li Lan should be out socializing and being seen and known by the other well-known "good" Chinese families in the area. Instead, she is languishing away in her family's grand, ancient, crumbling mansion, with a mentally absent, opium-addicted, wasted shadow of a father and only her loving, ancient Amah for company. It is a life of genteel poverty, and one from which Li Lan is not likely to escape anytime soon.My father’s withdrawal from the world meant that he had sought out no friends with sons and had arranged no match for me. For the first time I began to fully comprehend why Amah was continually angry with him on this subject. The contrast between the realization of his neglect and the fondness I had for my father was painful. I had few marriage prospects, and would be doomed to the half-life of spinsterhood. Without a husband, I would sink further into genteel poverty, bereft of even the comfort and respect of being a mother.Her father is not a despicable character, despite his faults. Formerly a wealthy merchant and a scholar, he now isolates himself from the world with the help of the opium pipe. Li Lan's father's story is a sad one, and even though he truly is a negligent father, I cannot despise him as a character. I find him tragic, but never reprehensible.One day, Li Lan's father casually mentions that the very wealthy Lim family is interested in Li Lan as a potential bride for their son. There's just one caveat. The son is dead. Li Lan would be his ghost bride: wedded to his spirit though he is dead and she very much living....my father said, “What, you don’t want to be a widow at almost eighteen? Spend your life in the Lim mansion wearing silk? But you probably wouldn’t be allowed any bright colors.” He broke into his melancholy smile. “Of course I didn’t accept. How would I dare? Though if you didn’t care for love or children, it might not be so bad. You would be housed and clothed all the days of your life.”Her father never pressures her into this decision. He knows his faults, he regrets it, but like an addict, he cannot change his ways. Regardless, he still loves his daughter, he respects her decision...his daughter is a constant reminder to him of his much-beloved wife, whom he has long lost.Li Lan gets invited to the Lim household, and sees the tempting glimpse of the lifestyle that she could have. She also sees and falls in love with someone whom she cannot have: the heir-to-be, the cousin of the deceased, Tian Bai. The more we find out about Tian Bai and Li Lan, the more tragic Li Lan's situation becomes. There is such terrible irony in the situation. More troublesome than the man Li Lan cannot have, is the dead man who wants her. Li Lan is haunted by the spirit of Tian Ching, her proposed ghost husband. He is a bumbling figure who becomes chillingly sadistic in how he comes to haunt Li Lan every night.I absolutely loved Li Lan's nightmares, and how they slowly come to overshadow Li Lan's life. The dreams are gorgeously portrayed, they felt more realistic to me than many of the dreams about which I've read in other books; they feel like dreams I've had, nightmares I've had that have scared me. They are just detailed enough and vague enough for me to feel, as a reader, that they could be real. I felt Li Lan's terror as Tian Chiang becomes a darker character, childlike in his aggression, in his singleminded attitude of wanting what he cannot have.Despite my terror, I felt a slow burning in my stomach. Why should I be married to this autocratic buffoon, alive or dead?“I don’t think so.”“What?”“I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t want to marry you!”Lim Tian Ching’s eyes narrowed into slits. Despite my bold words, my heart quailed. “You don’t have a choice in this matter. I’ll ruin your father.”“Then I’ll become a nun.”“You don’t know the extent of my influence! I’ll haunt you; I’ll haunt your father; I’ll haunt that meddling amah of yours.” He was raging now. “The border officials are on my side, and they said I have a right to you!”“Well, you are dead! Dead, dead, dead!” I shrieked.His threats are not empty promises. Tian Chiang's influence seemingly reaches beyond the afterlife and Li Lan's dreams. He torments and terrorizes her to such an extent that her spirit dissipates...she is turned into a shadow, a living ghost. Forced into the parallel ghostly underworld, Li Lan has to solve a number of mysteries and make some questionable alliances in order to return to the world of the living.Here is where the book weakens. There is just so much going on within it. The plot moves along at a slow pace, a reasonable one, but there are so many mysteries and so many plot lines that it is difficult for me to keep things straight.For example, in the living world, we have: the mystery of Tian Chiang's death, the mystery surrounding Tian Bai, Li Lan's illness and its relation to the haunting, her father's secrecy, the mysterious behaviors of the people in the Lim family, the mysterious character that she encounters at the medium. In the underworld, we have still more mysteries, still more secret plots, still more family mysteries to be untangled. There are ghosts, demons, long-dead relatives, officials of the Courts of Hell, the mystery of bribery and the border officials. And that's not to mention where things intersect.Oy vey! There is a lot of plot going on here, and it oftentimes made my head spin. It was also really confusing in some parts, largely because so much of the book is based in a ghostly parallel world and within dreams. At times, it was hard for me to tell what is actually real, and what is taking place within a dream---which is also real, but just...in a dream. Confusing, yes. Some parts of the book seemed largely extraneous, some people and certain interactions did not contribute much to the plot movement, and it bored me at some points.The characters are very much present, and not unlikeable, but largely lacking in color and in life compared to the setting itself. Li Lan is a sympathetic character, and very much likeable; she is very sheltered, very innocent, but never acts stupid to the point where I was frustrated with her actions. I felt her frustrations at times, Malaya is not traditionally Chinese, and women are given a lot more freedom than those in mainland China. Despite the fact, Li Lan is still helpless and confined in so many ways, and I understood her frustration for the helplessness of her fate.What was happening out in the world of men? Had Tian Bai talked to his uncle again? What were we to do with our debts? How I wished I could go out and make inquiries by myself. If only I had a brother or a cousin to rely on. Despite the fact that my feet were not bound, I was confined to domestic quarters as though a rope tethered my ankle to our front door.Despite all this, I cannot really relate to her as a character, however sympathetic I am to her plight. She is a very small fish in a very large pond, and I can't help but feel that she lacks---life. No pun intended.The romance is very, very light here. However much she swoons over Tian Bai, it never feels like love. Tian Bai is a nice guy, he really is. He is, however, completely lacking in personality. I hate to say it, but he has no character that I can discern. He's the boy next door, who has yet to mature into someone interesting. Li Lan's love for him doesn't feel like love so much as a very sheltered schoolgirl's infatuation with the very first eligible boy she meets...and he truly is. It's not as if Li Lan has had a chance to interact with many guys before, really, none at all. Her obsession with him, her despair over their forbidden-love situation just makes me want to roll my eyes and scoff "Teenagers!"Warning: there is a love triangle within this book. It's wonderful! Spectacular! Nope. Please. You guys know me and my feelings about love triangles. It's forced, it feels unnatural, and it is so very predictable and strange, considering the situations in which Li Lan and the third wheel interact. From the very first moment Li Lan sets eyes on the mysterious stranger, I sighed to myself "Here we go again," and I was right. It wasn't really annoying, because the romance in this book is so light as to be almost nonexistent. As I said before, the star of the book is the setting, the romance and the characters are but the means to the end of the mystery.In summation: this is a beautifully written book, with a wonderfully built atmosphere, bogged down somewhat by rather bland side characters. The plot is interesting, but is too slow at times, and is rendered confusing by the inclusion of dream sequences. Still, it comes highly recommended by me for anyone seeking a fascinating read. It is certainly one of the best books I've read this year in terms of historical and cultural accuracy, and the pure beauty of the writing.