Saturday, September 19, 2009

White Tiger

When Emma Donohue becomes the nanny for the little daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman, she soon realizes why her charge needs a bodyguard as well. Mr Chen’s enemies are an entire army of demons, most of whom can take human form. His house is sealed, his guards have sworn their lives to his service, and his four-year-old daughter knows who’s knocking at the door before it opens.

Not one to be easily intimidated, Emma takes up training in the martial arts and meets the gods of Chinese mythology – from the seductive White Tiger to the compelling Mr Chen – who have united against the demons.

The setup of Kylie Chan's White Tiger (Dark Heavens Trilogy) is fascinating. Chinese mythology is still underused in fantasy, and I enjoyed the setting, especially all the details about behavior, customs, jewelry… and triad members being armed with cleavers. The abilities of Mr Chen and little Simone were revealed gradually and seen realistically through newcomer Emma’s eyes.

On the other hand, this book could have done much better when it came to characterization. The demons are numerous, which would up the stakes if not for the fact that Emma, after some training, can take out five or six of the nameless cannon fodder simultaneously. One punch and the demons disperse into “black streamers” and “demon stuff”. Plus, they’re usually classified by levels, which made me think of a video game.

I faced the office girls: they were smaller, only about level ten. Leo faced the others… They were about level twenty.

As for the other characters, Emma starts off as a blunt, curious contrast to the reticent Mr Chen, but I got tired of the change she undergoes in the course of the novel. Her growing command of martial arts makes her lose weight, she’s revealed to have a genius-level IQ and she learns to use magic. The good characters love her, the bad characters want to have sex with her and the White Tiger does both. It’s too much of a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It was also difficult to feel the romance (which is described in much more detail than the demon battles) when the narrative referred to the hero as “Mr Chen” for 455 pages. After that he became “John”, but it was a bit late.

And although the first-person point of view worked well for establishing Emma’s life and character, it also meant that potentially explosive scenes such as the demonic assault on the Mountain Palace were relayed third-hand. Emma also overhears far too many informative but private conversations. Frankly, I’d like to read a scene where the feisty heroine eavesdrops on someone, only to hear them discussing their favorite brand of peanut butter.

White Tiger is the first in a four-book series, each named after one of the principal gods. If there was more characterization and suspense in later books, I’d try them, but the first one was lost potential. A heroine who was a Mary Poppins/Beatrix Kiddo combination would have been fascinating to read about.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it had some very interesting elements. Too bad it missed the mark for you.

Angela Ackerman said...

Hmm. the plot sounded good. But sometimes the actual read isn't quite what you'd hoped, eh?

I think too, sometimes less villians are more. It does sound a bit video game like.

Anonymous said...

Too much of a Mary Sue?

Marian Perera said...

Hey Angela,

Yes, one or two antagonists with names and distinct personalities are easier to remember than a horde of faceless creatures to be mown down.

Chan does present two demons with names, but they come along later in the book and they both want to have sex with the heroine, which I got a little tired of.

It would be one thing if they wanted this to hurt and humiliate her, but demon #2 is apparently the king of demons and she persuades him to let her escape from demon # 1 by bargaining him down from sex to a kiss. I really didn't see what he was getting out of this.

Ralfast, that's a sure sign of a Mary Sue to me.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

It does have interesting elements. The Chinese setup, the vivid Hong Kong background, the martial arts, the need for a kick-ass nanny... all of those could have made a great story with more conflict and characterization.

There's another Chinese fantasy that I'd like to read, though - Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix. Apparently that has some great descriptions of mouthwatering food too. :)

Mary Witzl said...

I love what you wrote about having the heroine eavesdropping on a conversation about peanut butter. Not only do touches like that give a book a more realistic feel, they provide much-needed throw away humor. Heroines who have it all leave me cold. I love protagonists who are imperfect, who can't always get what they want, or who sometimes want the wrong things. But I'm a sucker for anything with Chinese mythology in it, so I'd probably read this. And I've got my eye out for Cynthia Pon's 'Silver Phoenix', which has been on my list for months!

Marian Perera said...

"Not only do touches like that give a book a more realistic feel..."

I might do another blog post on this - it made me realize that not every event has to be significant, plot-heavy or portentous.

"I love protagonists who are imperfect, who can't always get what they want, or who sometimes want the wrong things."

Like Scarlett O'Hara, who combines all three. Those are the most memorable protagonists, the ones who push the plots into overdrive. I love them too.