Spirits Abroad

Zen Cho  - published August 2021

trade paper · 352 pages · $17 · 9781618731869 | ebook · 9781618731876
2nd printing: December 2022

LA Times Ray Bradbury Prize winner

A new expanded edition of Zen Cho’s award-winning debut collection.

Nineteen sparkling stories that weave between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Spirits Abroad is an expanded edition of Zen Cho’s Crawford Award winning debut collection with twelve added stories including Hugo Award winner “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.” A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Read an interview on Electric Lit: On Writing Fantasy Inspired by Malaysian Chinese Folklore

Read a story: 七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)

Reviews & Praise

“A must-read book for any sci-fi or fantasy fan.”

“These 19 science fiction and fantasy short stories infused with Malaysian folklore are absolutely gorgeous. Originally published in 2014, before Zen Cho’s debut fantasy, Sorcerer to the Crown, it is now being published by Small Beer Press with nine additional stories. In her Hugo Award–winning novelette ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,’ an imugi who wishes to ascend to full dragonhood has its plan thwarted by a human girl taking a selfie. In ‘The House of Aunts,’ a teenage pontianak (sorta like a vampire) lives with her overbearing female relatives and attends school, where she tries to hide her food choices from her crush. Just as with her novels, Cho merges humor and relatable characters with delightful prose and engaging storylines.”
—Margaret Kingsbury, Buzzfeed

“The first iteration of Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad came out a few years ago, but this new collection is bigger and bolder, including the delightful ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,’ which won a Hugo Award.”
Washington Post

“The most stylistically adventurous, even ex­perimental stories are included in the final sec­tion, ‘Elsewhere’, in which supernatural figures may be the main characters – a minor earth spirit narrates ‘The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote’, while a tricksterish Monkey King confronts a quite traditional Faerie Queen in ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’. My favorite story here is also the only one in the book which hints at science fiction. In ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, the title character escapes a nightmarish, dying Earth by winning a lottery to migrate to a moon colony, where she learns to live with moon rabbits and eventually has herself surgically altered into a Moonite with ‘long, ovoid eyes.’ She never escapes family responsibilities, though, and, after her mother dies, returns to Earth with the ashes. There she gains an insight that seems to haunt several of Cho’s stories, including perhaps Black Water Sister: ‘Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew.’ The tension on that thread of narrative, which adds subtle meaning to the title Spirits Abroad, is what gives Cho’s short fiction, even at its wittiest, a kind of haunting – and haunted – sensibility.”
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

“Highly recommended for those interested in well-written fantasy fiction outside of the post-Tolkien mold.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Powerful but subtle magic woven into the fabric of intricate worlds make Cho a sure favorite for readers of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado.”
Publishers Weekly

“A collection of speculative stories that play on Malaysian folklore and fantasy tropes with humor and compassion. . . . The stories are told with the precise and almost sparse voice of fairy tales. . . . the collection’s most moving stories harness seamless worldbuilding, intriguing character development, and thematic complexity. A swath of delightful and intricate stories from a wildly inventive storyteller.”
Kirkus Reviews

Sorcerer to the Crown author Zen Cho writes stories that slide easily between genres, and characters who hop nimbly between our world of banal bustle and a supernatural world that often seems just as annoying. This collection of ten stories, originally published in 2014 by Buku Fixi and the joint winner of 2015’s IAFA William L. Crawford Fantasy Award, is now being re-issued by Small Beer Press, and gives us new takes on ancient lore—especially the tales of Malaysia.
“A vampiric teen pontianak finds it hard to keep up with her schoolwork and her constant need to feed upon people. The moon goddess Chang E heads further into outer space—but is it in a spirit of adventure or to get away from Earth? An elderly Datin looks back at her failed love affair with an orang bunian, a type of spirit who would normally favor a deep forest or mountain home to avoid humans. Cho’s stories look at the intersection of those mundane and uncanny worlds—and the ways life among the humans can drive the spirit to distraction.”
, The Most Anticipated Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of 2021

“Zen Cho’s stories manage the rare and precious feat of being smart, witty, wise, horrific, and comforting all at once.” — Kate Elliott author of Unconquerable Sun

“An excellent collection.” — Abigail Nussbaum, Strange Horizons

Table of Contents


The First Witch of Damansara
The Guest
The Fish Bowl
First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia
The House of Aunts
Balik Kampung


One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland
起狮, 行礼 (Rising Lion—The Lion Bows)
七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)
The Mystery of the Suet Swain
Prudence and the Dragon
The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again


The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote
Monkey King, Faerie Queen
The Terra-cotta Bride
The Four Generations of Chang E

Praise for Zen Cho’s Books:

“An enchanting cross between Georgette Heyer and Susannah Clarke, full of delights and surprises. Zen Cho unpins the edges of the canvas and throws them wide.” — Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

“A warm, funny debut novel by a brilliant new talent.” — Charles Stross, award-winning author of the Laundry Files and Merchant Princes series

“Fabulous! If you like Austen or Patrick O’Brian, or magic and humor like Susanna Clarke, or simply a very fun read, you will really, really, enjoy this!” — Ann Leckie, Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning author of Ancillary Justice

“Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN is inventive, dangerous, brilliant, unsettling, and adorable, all at the same time. It shatters as many rules as its characters do. Historical Britain will never be the same again, and I can’t wait for the next book.” — Courtney Milan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

“A deliciously true tale of politics and power in a charming, cruel world — it demands and deserves to be read again and again. Cho has humor and flair to match Pratchett and Heyer plus her own marvelous style.” — Karen Lord, award-winning author of The Best of All Possible Worlds

“A delightful and enchanting novel that uses sly wit and assured style to subvert expectations while it always, unfailingly, entertains. I loved it!” — Kate Elliott, author of the Spiritwalker series

“Magic, manners and dragons in Regency England — this alone would be awesome, but Zen Cho adds a veneer of comment on English colonial politics …. Like a mix of Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and all its own thing. Glorious.” — Aliette de Bodard, award-winning author of Obsidian and Blood and The House of Shattered Wings

“A sheer delight from beginning to end. Cho perfectly conjures the opulence, absurdity and conflict of the period.” — Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season

“A delightful follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown! Cho applies her characteristic wit and charm to a tale of cursed sisters — a story I found as enchanting as her Faerie Court.” — S.A. Chakraborty, author of City of Brass

“Cho continues to confront class and gender roles in an alternate Regency England while showcasing entertaining prose and characters. A delightful historical-fantasy novel that will capture readers in its layered story line.”—Booklist

“Reading the clever deployment of weaponized manners never gets old; in Cho’s charming prose, The True Queen weaves a very pleasant spell indeed.” — NPR

“A winning combination of magic and thrill set in an alternative version of Regency England.” — Washington Post

“A captivating debut that, aside from examining both gender and racial prejudice, tells an entertaining story with wit and consummate skill.” — The Guardian (UK)

“Fans of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will flock to this historical fantasy debut for its shared setting and be rewarded with an exciting story and nuanced, diverse characters who make this novel soar on its own merits.” — Library Journal (starred review; debut of the month)

“Combines magic and the Regency period in the manner of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but adds an Austenian piquancy . . . Cho’s debut has much to recommend it, particularly its implicit critique of colonialism and its frothy good humour.”— Financial Times

“A classic, gently barbed upper-crust comedy mixed with magical thrills, modern social consciousness, and a hint of political intrigue. A decidedly promising start.”— Kirkus Reviews

“Zacharias brings to mind another orphaned young wizard whose combination of grit and melancholy captured readers’ hearts, and ingenious, gutsy Prunella simply shines.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Sorcerer to the Crown exceeds expectations. It’s a very entertaining and deeply enjoyable novel—and if this is what Cho gives us for her debut, I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does next.” — Locus

About the book

“The original print edition of Spirits Abroad was published by Fixi Novo in 2014. It was also released as an ebook containing extra stories and author’s notes. The Small Beer Press edition is an expanded edition published in August 2021, containing nine added stories including Hugo Award winner ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’.”

Zen Cho is the author of Black Water Sister, the Sorcerer to the Crown novels and a novella, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, as well as the short story collection Spirits Abroad. She is a Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, and a finalist for the Locus and Astounding Awards. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two.

Cover by Wesley Allsbrook.