Kylie Chan

Dark Heavens, book 1

HarperCollins (2006) 

ISBN: 9780732282967

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts (this review was originally published in October 2006)

There have been some really great debuts for Australian fantasy writers in the last twelve months, with Karen Miller’s adventurous Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology, and Grace Dugan’s promising first novel, The Silver Road. Like these two exciting new authors, Kylie Chan has produced a fast-paced and innovative debut novel, which adds a new dimension to the general picture of Australian fantasy fiction.

Emma is an Australian living and working in the childcare industry in Hong Kong, her English language skills being particularly prized. When she loses her job in a prestigious kindergarten for making the lessons a bit too much fun, she is snapped up for a full time nanny position by one of her regular clients, a mysterious and handsome Chinese businessman, Mr Chen, with an adorable, completely over-scheduled four year old daughter, Simone.

Sounds like one of those romantic comedies where the nanny falls in love with her employer and fixes his family while she’s at it? You wouldn’t be far wrong, though there is far more to this novel than that plotline. Despite the fact that it takes a long time to be officially revealed (to Emma, at least, who is a touch dense on this particular subject), it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Mr Chen is not a mobster (as Emma first believes) but is actually a Chinese god, as are many of his strange and entertaining cronies. He and his half-immortal daughter are under attack from various demons, and his current lifespan is running short. It is vital that he trains his daughter to be independent before he has to leave her, and that is only a matter of a few years. Falling in love with Emma is not part of the equation…

White Tiger is refreshing in many ways. It has a clear Australian voice, but also introduces cultural elements from Hong Kong and Chinese mythology with a strong sense of authenticity (the author lived in Hong Kong for many years). One of the things that makes fantasy so popular is the chance to visit another world and see the sights – for me, in this instance, that “other world” was the vibrant city of Hong Kong. I really felt like the armchair traveller in me was fully indulged with a sense of the society, landscape, food and general culture of a place I know absolutely nothing about.

What made White Tiger a page-turner for me, though, were the likeable characters. Emma felt like a very real heroine, and I enjoyed the various relationships she developed over the novel, particularly with other female characters. Chen works very well as a far more realistic and interesting male character than those that tend to be provided as a love interest to a gutsy female protagonist (but is still sexy as hell). Of particular note among the characters is Simone, a rare example of a child character who is neither a liability (though she does of course provide a vulnerability to several characters) nor an annoying brat.

More importantly, Chan has tackled one of the most difficult subjects in fantasy (characters who are gods and/or immortal) with great courage and creativity, and infuses them with enough vulnerabilities and clearly stated limitations that she was able to put them in serious, credible peril without cheating the reader.

White Tiger is the first book in a series, but has a complete narrative structure in of itself – if you like the book as much as I did, you’ll be keen to read book 2, but for the most part the end of this volume is satisfying. There were a few minor character threads that were raised on a regular basis as if they were building plot points and yet never came to fruition, but this was only disappointing because the narrative has such a good sense of balance otherwise, with a good mix of character, action (martial arts!) and the fantastic.

Packed with Chinese mythology, kick-ass action and sexual tension, White Tiger is highly recommended to anyone looking for a smart, entertaining read.