Saturday, September 19, 2009
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.