REVIEW: “The First Witch of Damansara” by Zen Cho

Review of Zen Cho’s, “The First Witch of Damansara”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

When Vivian’s grandmother dies, Vivian’s family ask her to return to Malaysia for the funeral. Her grandmother was a witch of some renown, while Vivian ‘in contrast, had a mind like a hi-tech blender.’ On returning to her family home, she finds troubled spirits in the shape of her grandmother’s wandering ghost, and her magical sister, Wei Yi, who is trying to work out how to honour her grandmother properly so she doesn’t become a kuang shi, or vampire.

I didn’t notice until I’d finished “The First Witch of Damansara” that Zen Cho presents an entirely female family story. There’s a fiance ‘beautiful, supportive, and cast in an appropriately self-effacing role—just off-screen,’ and Vivian’s dead Yeh Yeh plays a role in the story, but otherwise men are entirely absent from this family tale. The important conflicts, and relationships, all play out between women.

A significant part of Vivian’s story revolves around how she fits into her magical, Malaysian family’s life now when she has been apart from them for so long. In order to find her place she has to interact with her sister, mother, and even her grandmother’s spirit in ways that are often infuriating, but nevertheless help her to find a significant role in their lives again. I’m always excited to see family stories that allow women to develop strong, and complex, bonds with each other. And “The First Witch of Damansara” certainly brings the importance of female relationships to the fore.

The story whizzes by because it’s so well-paced. The conversations between the characters read with the naturalness found when people have known each other for a long time but still don’t always understand each other. And there’s a character here to capture the imagination of every reader: practical, fish out of water Vivian; tricksy, smart Nai Nai; argumentative, determined Wei Yi. I was already a big fan of Cho’s novel Sorcerer to the Crown, but after reading “The First Witch of Damansara” I’m eager to try out more of her short fiction too.