White Tiger (Kylie Chan, Dark Heavens #1)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
White Tiger is a middling quality kung fu themed urban fantasy with lots of tragic romantic elements.  The fact that it is book one in quite a large series is quite obvious, and probably the greatest issue I had with the book.  The story threads it introduces aren’t especially interesting, and most of them are left unresolved for use in a later book in the series.  This book felt a bit too much like an introduction to the series rather than an actual, self-contained book, and this is especially reflected in the ending, which just sort of arrives out of nowhere concealed by a very lengthy glossary and introduction to the mythology introduced in the book.  Despite these issues, White Tiger is an imaginative interpretation of Chinese mythology, the world is well developed, and there is an undertone of cheerfulness and fun that is very refreshing in the often maudlin urban fantasy genre.  Overall, I would recommend White Tiger because it has all the ingredients I want in a fantasy book: the story isn’t much more than an introduction, but it is definitely present, the setting is imaginative and engaging, and the story is fun.

Greater Detail:
Emma Donahue is an Australian English teacher in modern Hong Kong.  When she is contracted by the enigmatic and wealthy John Chen to become a live-in nanny for his young daughter, her life soon descends into a chaotic maelstrom of fighting demons and moping about due to unrequited love.

There are some elements of Emma Donahue serving as author wish-fulfilment fantasy that I found a little annoying.  Everyone seems to think that she is wonderful based on fairly insignificant things she does, almost all the men are immediately smitten with her even though she is introduced as not being especially attractive, and she never seems to make any mistakes that aren’t due to other people’s faults.  Luckily, these elements are fairly minor compared to other books in the genre of romantic urban fantasy.  While everyone thinks the protagonist is wonderful based on little justification, at least they don’t worship the ground she walks on while she consistently acts like a toxic rancorous bitch.

The book is salvaged a great deal by the imaginative setting.  I have doubts about how much of it would be interpreted as wholly authentic Chinese mythology, but in general, the setting is varied and engaging.  The demons are unique, and while they are fairly generic at first, they later exhibit distinct personalities and powers and the protagonist’s allies, the celestials from the Chinese pantheon, are also fairly unique in both powers and personalities.  I found the repetitive descriptions of the flamboyantly ostentatious lifestyle that the protagonist is drawn into very tiresome, but I suppose some people might find expensive ball gowns and private jets just as interesting as sword fights in parking lots and demons that bleed poison.

Despite all my negative comments, the one thing that really sets White Tiger above much of the urban fantasy genre enough that I would recommend it is the fact that it’s fun.  Most of the genre is populated with unlikeable, unsociable, misanthropic whiners who spend most of the book brooding about how rough their lives of completely inborn and unworked-for privilege and power are.  The protagonist here is appreciative, and gains whatever strength she has primarily through hard work and effort.  She is a bit of an author avatar, so it’s much less effort than everyone else, but at least she has to work a bit for it.  The people with power also seem to enjoy it and actually work to improve themselves.  Even the demons are motivated by goals of promotion and have understandable motives.  It’s nice seeing a fantasy world populated by people who actually have to work towards what they want and who appreciate what they have.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I would probably contrast this book most starkly with Carolyn Crane’s Mind Games.  While Mind Games marginally scored a recommendation, most of the flaws I found with this book are much more apparent in Mind Games.  Both are imaginative and well plotted enough that I would recommend them, but I think that White Tiger is definitely the stronger of the two.

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Posted in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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