Second Sister is an unusual mystery/thriller. As it opens, Nga-Yee is returning from her day working at the library but there is a crowd around her apartment building and as she struggles through she finds her fifteen-year-old sister lying on the ground, having thrown herself from the apartment window. In a very short time, Nga has lost so much.

Her father died in an industrial accident and she lost the chance of going to university. Then her mother died very quickly from cancer. Now she has lost her sister Siu-Man and is alone in the world This also means she will lose her home as the public housing in Hong Kong will not allow an apartment that once held four people to house only one person.

Her sister was driven to suicide by online bullying that began after she was sexually assaulted on a commuter train. While she did not see the predator, a bystander did. The man was convicted and sent to prison. Then his nephew began a social media campaign accusing Siu-Man of lying and claiming an innocent man was imprisoned by her. It was cruel and effective.

Nga is determined to find this nephew and seek revenge, but the first detective she hires tells her there is no such nephew and directs her to N, a computer hacker/genius. This begins the core of the story with Nga and N searching to discover the guilty with interstitial texts between chapters, a conversation between two people we assume are the guilty parties. The chase is on.
I was disappointed by Second Sister. I struggled to finish the story and perhaps I should have just put it down. I think it suffered from being a digital mystery with an analog main character. Nga knows far less of the internet than seems likely in a Hong Kong librarian. Perhaps it’s a decision so the book will be accessible to analog readers, but I found it very frustrating to read explanations of things most people know, such as what an IP address is.

This is an exploration of obsession and revenge and what evil people can do to seek. There is plenty of complexity, but it was not for me. I thought N repetitive and boring. Nga seemed an interesting character but N was so much a part of the story that his one-dimensional character weakened the story. The interstitial conversations were distracting to me and did not add to the story.

However, if you’re someone who is relatively new to the internet and computers, the story is written so you can understand the complexity of hunting for a person who has worked hard to hide behind the many tools that can hide your identity. I can see how it will be appealing to many with the salient theme of cyberbullying. This is a real phenomenon and makes a grim story that can only be described as cyber-noir.

I received an e-galley of Second Sister from the publisher through Edelweiss.

Second Sister at Grove Press | Grove Atlantic

Chan Ho-Kei about the author.