James McCafferty would rather be anywhere else than on this Chinese Junk his mother has forced him onto. Meant to be adventure therapy for its troubled teen passengers, this cruise from Hawaii across the Pacific will prove to be deadly. And James knows it—he can see ghosts. At sea and ill at ease with the misfits, criminals, and bullies who comprise his bunkmates, he comes to believe that the ship will be taken over by the restless spirits of a long-dead band of courtiers who had fled the Ming imperial world centuries ago. As the days go by, and as the adult leaders begin to disappear, James soon finds himself in a battle for his own soul.
Collison weaves together elements of horror, historical, and nautical fiction in Water Ghosts. It is rife with teenage angst stemming from James’s father’s death, his mother’s detachment, and his sense of isolation from being able to perceive auras and departed spirits. Her experience with ships shines through, as do her insights into the teenage mind and the history of the Ming dynasty. For this reader, however, the angst and teenage drama were just too thick. James’s supernatural abilities distracted from the story. Direct encounters with the courtiers’ ghosts would have been more compelling.
Most of the characters lack depth, and the story breaks stride about two-thirds of the way through as Collison sends us back hundreds of years into the dead courtiers’ lives, departing from the main characters’ storyline for most of the remainder of the book. This is a short novel, and trying to squeeze two stories into it just didn’t work. Though YA, the writing is rife with adult themes and explicit language.