Zama combines a vibrant portrayal of the illegal drinking clubs of 1920’s America with the trauma of being a first generation immigrant, then adds a dash of the mystical, to create a paranormal romance that is fresh in both setting and issues.
Two years ago, Susie left her small village in China for America to marry a man she’d never met. Only to discover upon arrival that he’d died. Accepting an offer of sanctuary from Simon, his business partner, she finds herself among the smoke and noise of 1920’s Chicago. The long hours and short dresses of speakeasies reveal a world where women are as free as men; a freedom she embraces. However, when Blood, a patron, offers her something more than room and board, she discovers Simon’s offer is just a different cage, and that she only buried the expectation that Chinese women will be dutiful not shed it.
This novella is formed of two strands: the struggle of a young Chinese immigrant to choose between the person she loves and her perceived duty to the person who gave her a life; and a conflict between spirits who bond themselves to humans to achieve a presence in the world.
Zama’s handling of the romance is skilled: scenes with Blood share the descriptions of freedom that initially fill Susie’s dancing, smoking, and drinking, whereas scenes without him lose this joy, allowing the reader to feel the pull between them; and, while Susie’s feeling that she has to stay with Simon might seem rather strong to some readers, her memories of childhood in China and arrival in America give a good foundation for this surge of duty.
The concept of spirits who gain power from humans through providing a “benefit” is both interesting, and not noticeably the mythology of a single place squeezed into other places around the world in the manner of, for example, Eastern European vampires who have avoided appearing in other nation’s legends by being exceptional at hiding their true presence. However, the revelation of the metaphysics is, at times, distracting. When Susie first feels the presence of a spirit like those her family warned of, the scene portrays this as a somewhat nebulous fear of ancient myth, but later she demonstrates a much clearer knowledge without any intervening discovery or sense of growing belief; this creates a sense of the narrator withholding things from the reader to maintain mystery, rather than because there is a mystery. In contrast, another character pauses in the middle of a scene to provide several paragraphs of internal dialogue about spirits; while this information is useful to the reader, people do not usually think at length on things they already know – especially while racing to the rescue – so the character seems to turn to the reader to deliver a lecture, which weakens the tension.
This sense Zama is telling the reader what they need to know now rather than showing the characters facing their issues is exacerbated by the imbalance in points-of-view: most of the book is from the perspective of Susie with only the occasional scene from another character to insert certain facts.
Therefore, while the ideas behind the two threads support each other, the execution of the more mystical thread at times interferes with the tale of an immigrant struggling to find happiness.
Susie is – apart from moments of concealing information from the reader – a plausible and sympathetic character; while her angst over her dilemma is a strong feature, it fits well, meaning most readers will recognise the emotional turmoil rather than become irritated by the repetition.
The supporting cast have the same dichotomy: when feeling emotion, they act in ways that immediately resonate; when revealing the world, they seem annoyingly partial in their thoughts.
Overall, I found this novella an interesting idea delivered in a style that didn’t suit me. I recommend it to readers seeking a paranormal romance based around duty or among the criminals and free-spirits of the Jazz Age.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.