Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

Dark Heavens Dark Heavens
by Kylie Chan

Supplied for review by Harper Collins New Zealand

Reviewed By: Katie Boyle
Jacqui Smith

A lot of urban fantasy is of the plug-and-play variety—plug in this vampire characteristic and that type of fae and go. While this type of story can be well-written and interesting, reading too many leads to ennui and a need for something different.

Dark Heavens is an omnibus of the first three novels in Kylie Chan’s series about Emma Donohoe and John Chen, who starts off as her employer but becomes her sensei and ultimately her boyfriend/life-partner/husband. (It’s complicated.) The books are individually titled White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Blue Dragon. They are all set mainly in Hong Kong, where Emma is an expat (Aussie) English teacher. After she begins working for Chen, she gradually discovers that the world contains more than she had ever imagined. Her employer is in fact Xuan Wu, Dark Lord of the Northern Heavens, God of Martial Arts, and a combination of turtle and snake is his natural form. She is nanny for his daughter, Simone, who is half-human; his enemies go after Simone and other members of his household attempting to get to him. And so it continues for three books.

There is potential for this to become boring—the basic premise doesn’t change, and the books are long. However, I connected to the character of Emma right away, perhaps because I was once an expat English teacher in Asia. She undergoes profound changes in the course of the three books, going from “normal” Australian girl to kickass energy-manipulating god-consort, but in a way that encourages suspension of disbelief. (You can’t exactly say a way that’s realistic, can you?) And it’s not plug and play—the milieu is different enough from the norm of urban fantasy to be of interest in and of itself.

Though there were a few minor points that became annoying (the characters laughed a lot when they were in groups), the biggest drawback to this book is its size: it is a trade paperback of over 900 pages. (And as my daughter pointed out, each page holds quite a lot of text.) In terms of value for money it’s good, because you get a lot of interesting reading for you money; however, you can’t take it anywhere with you, even in a backpack, so you’re restricted to reading at home. On the dining room table. Because nothing else can support its weight.

My recommendation: read Kylie Chan, but if you want the omnibus get it as an ebook.

-Katie Boyle

Now this really is a brick; 900+ pages, 6cm thick, and weighing in at nearly a kilo. But then it is an entire trilogy in one volume (and these days, if the physical size is too much, there’s always the e-book). Chan gives us urban fantasy with an oriental twist, what you might call Fu Fantasy.

The cover is somewhat misleading because the central character is actually an Australian woman, working as an early childhood teacher in Hong Kong. She quits working for the kindergarten and becomes a full-time nanny when the woman running the kindergartens begins asking too many questions about the father of the child she’s been looking after. Of course, he is far more than just another wealthy Chinese businessman. He’s a turtle… and he’s the Lord of the Northern Heavens.

It’s true that Chinese mythology lends itself to this kind of treatment, and has been doing so for centuries in the traditional wuxia – what you might call martial arts fairy tales. This book is then the literary equivalent of fusion cuisine, the blending of western urban fantasy with modern wuxia – sort of Nalini Singh meets Jet Li. Now, there are plenty of critics who deride fusion cuisine, and I’m sure that Kylie Chan’s work has its detractors, but it’s quite evident that she’s researched both the background and the setting. Her writing is still somewhat in need of a good editing; "White Tiger" was her first book and it shows.

Be warned that some people will find our heroine irritating; too slow to figure out what’s going on, and too quick in developing her skills. I found it to be a lightweight and entertaining trilogy, with lots of high-kicking chi-flinging martial arts battles. Perhaps too many… it got a bit samey after a while. The bad guys are primarily the demons of Chinese myth, the kind that dissolve into black goo when thumped hard enough. Which is a pleasant change from vampires and zombies.

The largely unresolved sexual tension is for once given some rationale for its lack of resolution. And truth is, I looked at the size of the volume, and initially decided I’d read it as three separate novels. But I got to the end of book one, and just kept going… and that is as good a recommendation as any. Oh… and there is another trilogy published, and it seems one coming after that.

- Jacqui Smith

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