Ever since her father left and her mom moved her and her younger brother Matt away from the larger Hmong American community to live in small town Wisconsin, Pahua Moua has felt like the weirdo outsider. It isn’t just that she’s the only Asian person in her class. Her single mom has to work long hours to cover expenses, leaving Pahua responsible for looking after Matt and severely limiting the eleven year-old’s social life and free time. And then, of course, there’s the fact that Pahua can see spirits that no one else can.
Having been raised, however loosely, in the Hmong tradition, Pahua knows about spirits and the shamans like her aunt who can communicate with them. But she also knows that not everyone else can see them the way she does. So she spends a lot of time pretending she can’t either, to varying degrees of success, even tho her best friend is Miv, the spirit kitten who accompanies her almost everywhere. When an effort to make friends her own age at summer school leads her to cross paths with the vengeful spirit haunting a local bridge, Pahua’s compassion, coupled with her shamanic abilities, accidentally sets off a chain of events that results in the bridge spirit stealing Matt’s soul and taking it away to the Spirit Realm.
With Matt’s body in the Mortal Realm getting sicker by the day and, according to Miv, only about three days left to save him, Pahua is determined to confront the bridge spirit and restore Matt’s soul. She gathers some of the shaman gear her aunt had left with them and heads to the bridge again, only to have a very different kind of supernatural entity appear when she rings her aunt’s summoning gong. Luckily, a shaman warrior in training named Zhong also shows up, who both lends a hand in defeating the demon and offers to guide Pahua in her ongoing search. It’s a little unfortunate that Zhong has a huge chip on her shoulder, but any ally is better than no ally, right?
As Pahua and Zhong join forces to travel to the Spirit Realm and save Matt, they’ll have to learn not only to work together but also how to navigate their way through the Six Realms of the Hmong. There will be plenty of reversals and revelations as the two girls search for answers and fight bad guys, all while exploring the rich mythology of their culture.
This was a really fun, absorbing way to learn about Hmong folklore, which is based almost exclusively on oral traditions. Lori M Lee is doing amazing work capturing the stories of her people in a way that opens them up to a new generation of readers. While I’m Southeast Asian myself, I’ve had little to no contact with Hmong culture, and was so pleased to be able to remedy that with this really terrific middle grade novel. Admittedly, the first two thirds of the novel weren’t as gripping to me as the last third, and I’m still trying to pinpoint why. Lots happens and I admired the writing but just didn’t feel as engaged with the book as I do most others of this sort. Perhaps it had to do with the way my reading kept snagging on the difference between the spellings and pronunciations of the Hmong words, in large part due to the seeming lack of consistency. The excellent plotting of the last third of the book more than made up for any lack of immersion on my part till then, however.
And quite frankly I can see younger readers having no problem with the relatively slow burn of the first 67%, especially if their brains aren’t as calcified with traditional linguistics as mine! I would probably have loved this so much as a younger reader, because it’s so steeped in mythology and, frankly, has a very relatable Southeast Asian protagonist (even if she and I had very different socioemotional circumstances.) I loved, too, how most of the characters were female, and how it showed that there isn’t just one way to be heroic. I’m 100% handing this over to my ten year-old to read, and will update this review should he have anything to add to this conversation!
I really do love how the Rick Riordan Presents imprint cares about representation and makes books like these for diverse audiences. Minority stories matter, as does the act of preserving cultural heritage for future generations. It’s so important to record the richness of world cultures and to make them accessible both to a wider audience and to those seeking a closer tie to their own traditions. To that end, Ms Lee absolutely knocks this book out of the park! I’m very much hoping to be able to read sequels to this sooner rather than later, especially since they’ve been set up so nicely with questions I’d love to explore the answers to!
Pahua And The Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee was published September 7 2021 by Disney Hyperion and is available from all good booksellers, including