This was a long (and slightly draggy in places, but otherwise) excellent novel which went in somewhat unexpected, but nevertheless entertaining directions.
In the antique port of Malacca, which has slipped out of Dutch influence, but is still under the sway of Muslim and British presences, young Pan Li Lan learns that she has been chosen as the ghost bride for the unexpectedly deceased Lim Tian Ching. There is some suspicion over his death, and Li Lan is not interested in a relationship with this man, even a ghost one. She'd much rather be involved with his cousin, Tian Bai, who is now the family heir, but the Chings and the Pans were once close, and now that Li Lan's father has made such a mess of their family finances, they need this relationship to keep them on an even keel.
Li Lan is further dissuaded when Lim Tian begins to visit her in her dreams. She becomes stressed and ill, as is the wont of young girls in those times, and she finds herself visiting the astral plane where she seems to have become trapped, unable to return to her body. Here she encounters Er Lang, a mysterious man who is investigating the afterlife of the Lim family because of suspected corruption. He and Li Lan become allies, and with his promise of helping her to return to life, and his need to uncover this corruption, they begin working together.
I am not a believer in any afterlife at all, but I do enjoy a good story about this kind of thing, and this one was inventive and original enough to keep my interest, even as it became a bit slow and irritating from time to time. The afterlife depicted here had several facets. One of these was merely the ghosts haunting the real world, but Li Lan discovers another, one where the living do not normally get to visit.
This next phase was purely a ghost world, which was modeled on the real one, but in which there were only ghosts - no solid people at all. That world, which was bleak and confusing, was to an extent was made possible and supported by burned offerings: you burn a paper house, and one appears in the afterlife for the person to whom the offering was dedicated. The more elaborate and realistic the burned offering is, the better the quality of the one in the hereafter - so even in the afterlife, the rich have it better! I guess Jesus lied with that "camel through the eye of a needle" shtick, but it's a great pitch if you want to rip-off the gullible and pull in some cash. Christian churches have been pulling this same trick for two thousand years!
But other than that, it was just like the life they left, and it made me wonder what was the point? The story tried to explain it as a way-station - a transition between the substantial life on Earth and a more spiritual one afterwards, but it was supposed to be only a way-station prior to judgment, yet even here, there was corruption, and the dead could lead and life of luxury for some considerable time, evidently buying-off the judges so judgment never came.
It made for an interesting read, but life wasn't roses there by any means. There were bull-headed demons hunting Li Lan, and ravenous leathery flying creatures which feasted on meat and would eat people caught out in the open. I have no idea what that was about since this was supposed to be before they were judged! Some of this made no sense, but overall, it was a fun story, inventive and interesting, and it made for a worthy read. I recommend it for anyone who is interested Asian fantasy, and ghost stories that are off the beaten track.