White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Blue Dragon by Kylie Chan
The Dark Heavens trilogy offers an innovative take on modern fantasy, blending Chinese mythology and martial arts to produce something that is refreshingly different to the western myth-based fantasies prevalent on the book shelves.
The story is set in Hong Kong, meaning when I finally travel there I’ll get to visit all the places named in the books; always a fun game. Sprinkled throughout are other cultural tidbits about such things as food and yum cha. Sometimes I would read references like cheongsam and mangle the pronunciation in my head. CHEE-ONG-SAM? What’s that? And then the Aha! moment would arrive when I connected it with the Cantonese section of my brain. Of course none of this is prerequisite knowledge to enjoy the books. Rather they’re little Easter eggs for those in the know and slices of Chinese culture for everyone else. I in fact was learning plenty of things about my culture I didn’t even know. Next time I visit the Taoist temple I’ll hopefully be able to pick out some of the gods and bodhisattvas.
Okay, so the flavour is minty fresh and there’s plenty of choc chips throughout to spice things up but how about the writing itself, the icecream in this horrible metaphor? Happily the answer is smooth and creamy. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it is that it is easy to read. The dialogue is easy on the ear, the snappy exchanges between Emma and Leo very realistic. Even the sarcasm, always something of a risky proposition in written form, comes through clearly. Anyone who has tried and failed to convey sarcasm via email will know what I mean.
Kylie often introduces something new without immediate explanation, leaving the reader in the dark. Thankfully she doesn’t torture us too long, revealing the answers soon enough. Her style takes a little getting used to but I found the fast pace kept me happily turning pages. In fact there are few if any loose ends and all the major questions posed are nicely solved by Kylie. I for one was wondering how one can tie down a god.
In my own attempts to write fight scenes I tend to overchoreograph in excruciating detail every punch and counterpunch. Kylie’s execution is far better than mine, providing detail without bogging down the action. Martial arts evolves to incorporate energy manipulation; the ‘magic’ of the story. We’re talking chi, chakras, elements, yin and yang, things we in the west have heard of even if we don’t quite believe in them. Running up walls? Why not? I’ve heard those Shaolin masters really do that stuff. I’m not sure how much license the author is taking but again she seems to have gotten the balance between the real and the fantastic just right.
I do have a small gripe with the book names. The titular characters are not that pivotal to each book, so why name the books after them? They do make a neat pattern and like Kylie Chan I’m not sure I could have passed up the opportunity to use those titles either. In contrast the remaining member of the four winds, “Dark Heavens” makes a perfect name for the trilogy. Though not the main character, Xuan Wu, god of martial arts, Mr Dark Heavens himself, is the hook on which this fantasy hangs.
Despite not being a series I’ve seen hyped about elsewhere I’m happy I picked up this fantasy. Fresh, witty and well executed (it’s from an Australian author too!), I’m looking forward to reading the sequel trilogy, Journey to Wudang.