The Formidable Miss Cassidy
By Meihan Boey
Fantasy/Epigram Books/Paperback/237 pages/$26.64/Available here
4 out of 5
In 1890s Singapore, there are plenty of ways to perish. If malaria doesn't get you, the hantu (Malay for ghosts) will.
But all this proves no match for the formidable heroine of Boey's debut novel, the co-winner of this year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize and an utter delight.
Miss Leda Cassidy arrives in Singapore from Scotland to serve as a paid companion to delicate Sarah Jane, the last surviving child of the beleaguered Bendemeer family.
It is not long before Miss Cassidy establishes that the Bendemeers have been killed off not by tropical fever, but the pontianak haunting their garden, and sets about devising a solution.
She also catches the attention of prominent businessman Kay Wing Tong, whose many daughters and daughters-in-law require tutelage - not to mention protection from the mysterious curse upon his household.
Boey, a comic-book scriptwriter who in 2019 published space novella The Messiah Virus (available here), clearly relishes playing with genres.
Here, she combines several - from the Victorian comedy of manners to the fairy tale - to effervescent effect.
Mythology buffs will enjoy spotting the various cameos from pantheons around the world, rubbing elbows with local ghouls such as the pontianak and the toyol.
But this is no mere pastiche. Boey remains ever conscious of the colonial politics behind her mixing of genres and folklore, which she navigates with a light touch.
The best thing about this novel is its intrepid, no-nonsense heroine, who puts one in mind of Mary Poppins or Elizabeth Peters' archaeologist-detective Amelia Peabody - or even the real-life Austrian adventuress Ida Pfeiffer, who also visited 19th-century Singapore.
Physically, Miss Cassidy presents as a middle-aged spinster with red hair, though it soon becomes apparent that there is more to her than meets the eye.
She absorbs the challenges of her situation - whether arranging a marriage or an exorcism - with a matter-of-fact "Hm".
The choice of final villain is somewhat questionable. As there is little set-up for it, it seems to come out of nowhere.
But this is a quibble when presented with a charming adventure, a competent heroine and a middle-aged romance you find yourself rooting for. It is very good fun - which cannot be underestimated in these times.
If you like this, read: The True Queen by Zen Cho (Pan Macmillan, 2019, $20.47, available here). In this 19th-century fantasy, two girls, Muna and Sakti, wash up on the Malay island of Janda Baik with no memories. They learn they are cursed and must travel via the fairy realm to England to seek the help of its Sorceress Royal.