Pahua and the Soul Stealer (2021)

by Lori M. Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368068246
Publication: September 7, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

I’ve been waiting for the book since I first read the announcement. Although I was unsure about what to expect, I enjoyed what I found. Miv the spirit cat is very much a show stealer with his wit and sarcasm. Pahua is the girl who could be more than she seems if she only believed in herself. Zhong, the shaman warrior, is always ready for a fight and desperately wants to prove herself. They embark on an adventure to the spirit world to rescue Pahua’s brother Matt. It’s one that is exciting, made fun especially with Miv’s sarcasm, and filled with some very close calls.

The book is rich in imagination. It’s an entertaining infusion of Hmong mythology and folk tales with Lee’s skillful world-building; she not only incorporates the mythology but she expands the world to make it her own. There are shamans, shaman warriors, spirits, and gods. The spirit realm is especially complex with its many entities–tree spirits, wind spirits, gate guardians, and more–to the various modes of transportation. One of my favorites is when the spirit horse appears. When Zhong seeks out her horse spirit, she has to go to a rental to call for it…heh. There’s a lot to learn about this world, and at times, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially with new pieces of information popping up every few pages. 

The emphasis on who or what a hero looks like was an especially compelling part of the book. A hero doesn’t always look or sound like what a hero is imagined to be. Pahua, as the central protagonist, lacks confidence and know-how but is willing to do what is necessary to return her brother’s soul to his body–her love for her family exceeds her fears. Pahua demonstrates that anyone can be a hero. You just need to look within yourself. Additionally, winning doesn’t always mean swords and fists. Sometimes there are better ways to get what you want.

I loved the inclusion of Hmong words and names. Many were spelled in Hmong while others were Anglicized, possibly to make it easier to read or pronounce. For instance, Nhia Ngao Zhua Pa is used as opposed to the Hmong spelling Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj. Phonetically, the former is easier to pronounce. Then there is the former God of Thunder’s name where xob is the correct spelling of thunder as opposed to xov meaning thread–different tones as denoted by the last letter will change the meanings. I was tripped up a bit by the usage xob and xov because some characters had names that identified who or what they were while others did not.  

Aside from the Hmong words, there are references to sayings here and there that made me smile. In particular, there’s a reference to eating only eggs and ramen. When you’re a kid and you cook eggs and ramen (referring to the instant kind here), it’s commendable. When you’re an adult and someone says all you eat or can cook are eggs and ramen, it’s an insult meaning you’re lazy. Hehehe. 

I needed this book as a kid when I was searching for demons to fight and dragons to ride. Like Pahua, I grew up not knowing much, and, to be honest, I still don’t know very much. It creates the possibility of building and enhancing cultural connections for Hmong children who might find themselves wondering about their heritage and their identity. Representation would have gone a long way for me, including not being ashamed about what I brought to lunch or having white and red strings around my wrists–all things Lee mention in the book. The book eill also introduce non-Hmong individuals to new and exciting adventures that incorporate folktales and myths they may not have previously been exposed to. It’s a fun middle-grade read that is very much plot-driven. Those looking for action and adventure will certainly enjoy Pahua and the Soul Stealer.

Just a note: As a middle grade read, this is definitely 4 stars with its emphasis on action and adventure. For me, this is only 3.5 stars mostly because I like a more time to ruminate in specific moments and the book doesn’t do this much as Pahua, Miv, and Zhong are constantly moving on to the next thing to do or place to go.