Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan

 Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan

White Tiger is the first in the Dark Heavens trilogy, which was first published by Orbit in Australia, and is now being reissued through Angry Robot, the new SF, F, and WTF imprint of HarperCollins UK*.  Angry Robot was kind enough to send me an ARC of the book to review, and given the nature of this blog, a review is exactly what youll get, although today with bonus ramble!

Ill be honest and say that my very first impression of this book was a feeling of relief that the rather execrable cover could be put down to the fact that the book is an ARC. The cover, which comprises some dodgy Photoshop burn-and-fade, a tiger tattoo design, and a strangely made-up girl wearing an Ed Hardy tattoo shirt, is not an especially well put together piece of workand Ive cringed at my fair share of urban fantasy novels in my local bookshop. However, given that the other two in the trilogy have been posted up on the Angry Robot website, and exhibit similarly styled covers, perhaps I was mislead.

Unfortunately, my woes didnt end here. I wanted to enjoy this book far more than I did. My interest is easily piqued by anything set in a foreign country, and particularly one with whose culture I have some familiarity, and given my boyfriends love of wuxia and kung fu comedy (Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan are regular guests in our home), I was ready for a rollicking good ride.

While White Tiger does indeed offer some fun and pacy action, and it certainly barrels along at an impressive pace (I churned through its 500-and-something pages in one [admittedly long] evening), the book suffers from a number of issues that make me reluctant to put it out there as a great Hong Kong-based urban fantasy novel.

White Tiger opens with Australian English-teacher and nanny Emma having an awkward and stilted conversation with kindergarten manager Miss Kwok. Concepts such as face are alluded to, and we soon come to an explicit discussion of the importance of wealth and and power and consumerism in Hong Kong society. This, to me, was a red flag (for the curious, never fear, as Chan will later smugly inform us about the importance of red in Chinese society).  Kylie Chan, I should note, is a Caucasian Australian author who is married to a Hong Kong national, and as far as I know resides in Hong Kong. While this potentially offers the reader an interesting reflection on Hong Kong society, Chan unfortunately does so very much from the perspective of an outsider, and through Emmas eyes we are treated to a blow by blow account of Things That Are Different in Hong Kong. I think the novel suffers from this, and feel that the setting and milieu would have been stronger as a whole had Chan better straddled the issue of anthropologist as insider/outsider. As it is, we never really get a feel for Hong Kong as a cohesive place or space, and much of the novel feels as though it is taking place in a vacuum with the occasional tour guide break to inform us about how to eat siao long bao or that shopping in Hong Kong is a neverending past-time. This to me was somewhat disappointing, as much of my enjoyment of reading tends to stem from being transported to another place. Examples of books that do this exquisitely include The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, any fiction by Yasunari Kawabata, and if were looking at more mainstream urban fantasy, a range of work by Charles de Lint.

This lack of anchoring is compounded by the fact that the characters seem to frolic between various settings and even countries without so much as a line break to let the reader know whats going on (although I might be able to blame the ARC format for thisits highly possible that the line breaks didnt translate into the physical copy, and that this will be addressed in proofing). I was a bit perturbed to find the family suddenly in France, then England, then Australia, and all whilst I was under the impression that they were eating breakfast in their kitchen at home.

An additional consequence of this lack of anchoring is the fact that the supernatural threats experienced by the characters in White Tiger never really feel real or grounded. I should perhaps note tat this point that main character Emma has let her afore-mentioned job at a kindergarten to take on a suspiciously well-paid job as a live-in nanny and English teacher with an astonishingly handsome employer and his painfully precocious (and already perfectly English-speaking) young daughter. Inevitably, we find out, with the help of some foreshadowing slathered on rather more thickly than I prefer my Vegemite, that Emmas employer is a down-on-his-luck god who is being hunted somewhat indiscriminately by a variety of demons and Other Bad Things. All of which are rather hilariously divided into ability levels, much like D&D game critters, and who explode into a pile of black goo when attacked, much like, er, Flubber. Or that yellow stuff from the mushroom episode of Around the Twist.

After a few black good incidents, Emma finally realises that all is not as it seems (this takes rather a long time, considering that she apparently has an IQ in the near-genius range), at which point the book suddenly slides into a Rocky-esque training scenario where Emma turns from chubby klutz into martial arts extraordinaire. Perhaps an appropriate soundtrack would be Eye of the (White) Tiger. The book from this point on can either be conceived of as the authors unrelenting embrace of Mary Sue-dom, or perhaps as the traditional empowerment of the would-be superhero through the well-beaten overcoming adversity through Kung Fu path. Unfortunately, while this is all very well and good as an episode of Buffy, the notion of an entire book-as-montage doesnt really work, and the reader soon comes to realise that the entire first book in the trilogy is basically a prolonged prologue.

While there are some fun moments to White Tiger, and I enjoyed some of Chans dialogue (although Emmas punch line of youll keep does become a tad stale after a while), I cant help but feel that the book doesnt really stand on its own. Rather than being a separate element of the trilogy, it might well have fared better being incorporated into the second or third books. The forbidden love story component of the book doesnt quite ring true, and when set in context with the other elements of the book, it becomes quite challenging not to see Emma as some sort of vicarious winner-takes-all puppet.

*Since the time of writing the publication details for White Tiger have changed somewhat. The book will now be published under the Harper Voyager imprint in both Australia and the UK, and with the following beautiful cover:

white tiger kylie chan aus cover Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan

 Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan

Purchase White Tiger

Other books by Kylie Chan you might like: Red Phoenix; Blue Dragon

 Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan Review: White Tiger by Kylie Chan

Forthcoming reviews: Smart Casual by Niamh Shaw (romancechicklit); 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (young adult)

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