A review of White Tiger by Kylie Chan (Harper Voyager, 2011) – originally published in Interzone
White Tiger is Kylie Chan’s first novel. Originally published in Australia in 2006, HarperCollins has now decided to make it more widely available.
It is a contemporary fantasy novel written in the first person. The protagonist, Emma Donahoe, is an Australian English teacher working at a kindergarten in Hong Kong. The novel begins with her giving up her job at the kindergarten to become the nanny of four-year-old Simone (an unnaturally well-behaved and intelligent child). Simone’s father is John Chen, a wealthy and very attractive Hong Kong businessman. However, it is not long before Emma discovers that Chen is really an incognito Chinese god. To be precise, he is Xuan Wu, one of the senior deities of the Taoist pantheon and a god closely associated with Chinese martial arts. The fourth major character in the novel is Leo, an Afro-American martial arts expert and John Chen’s bodyguard. Leo also happens to be stereotypically gay (to the point of choosing clothes for Emma and John!).
All is not well with John Chen. He is trapped in human form and seriously weakened. The demons have already killed his wife, and the king of the demons has offered a reward for his head. Of course, that makes everyone close to him a potential target, so Emma finds herself on the receiving end of a crash course in martial arts and their esoteric counterparts.
There is a lot of potential in this novel. New voices in urban fantasy are always welcome, and the use of Chinese mythology (in which the author is seemingly well-versed) makes a very welcome change from the usual rehashed Eurocentric mythologies that tend to dominate this genre. Add to that the promise of lots of martial arts action and the stage seems to be set for something really exciting.
Sadly her descriptions of the martial arts involved are surprisingly vague given their importance in the story. Strangely, for an author who has put a lot of emphasis on her knowledge of Chinese culture and mythology, Kylie Chan uses the Japanese term ‘kata’ when referring to the various martial art forms rather than the more authentic ‘taolu’. I must confess that I was quite unimpressed by many of the fight descriptions: her numerical rating of demons and the fact that they explode into black goo when they are defeated made them seem like something out of a computer game!
But my main complaint about the novel is that it seems bloated. There is lots of action of the ‘one damn thing after another’ variety, but there are also various subplots that don’t seem to drive the story forward at all. For example, Emma’s former employer, the slightly sinister Kitty Kwok, keeps trying to contact her. And we are treated to regular conversations over lunch with her girlfriends, April and Louise, in which we hear a good deal more than we really need to about April’s relationship with a minor Hong Kong gangster. Perhaps she is laying the groundwork for important events in later volumes, but if so a little more foreshadowing might have been in order.
And, after nearly 550 pages, surprisingly little seems to have been resolved. Our heroes have survived a major demonic assault; Emma seems uncannily adept at martial arts and something unspecified about her frightens the king of the demons; she has become John Chen’s consort but for various reasons they must remain celibate; and, in the event of something happening to John Chen, she will become Simone’s guardian.
Perhaps the lack of resolution relates to the fact that White Tiger is the first volume of a trilogy. Perhaps she is working on a really large scale and the loose ends and unresolved issues will all work together into a satisfactory conclusion in another 1000 pages. But I’m not sure I have the patience to wade through those pages, particularly if they involve much more girl talk over dim sum!