Saturday 29 December 2018

Review: The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

I was in the mood to read something fun. After browsing the unread books on my Kindle for ages, I decided to re-read, instead, and it's been a while since I first read The Dragons of Heaven. Fortunately, the book was as good as I remembered.

The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where there are superheroes, alliances of superheroes, magic, myths, and monsters. Missy, our protagonist, is the grand daughter of Mitchell Masters, a.k.a. 1950s superhero Mister Mystic. His gift (and her inherited power) is to tap into the shadow realm, which is useful for cloaking the face, for hiding from sight, for drawing forth demonic monstrous shadow creatures, and, if the shit really hits the fan, for diving into, traversing the hellscape while trying not to be noticed or destroyed by monsters, and emerging elsewhere.

The novel is told in chapters alternating between two strands: "then", and "now".

Then, a few years ago, teenage Missy first dallied with the idea of turning masked vigilante. After an early foray goes disastrously wrong (she gets shot by a professional superhero), she makes her way to China like her grandfather before her, to find a dragon who might teach her martial arts and Chinese mystic powers and stuff.

Now, a plot involving triads and assorted villains is under way, a plot which Mr Mystic gets entangled in while trying to fight crime in Chinatown.

The Dragons of Heaven is, as the cover promises, "A hell of a lot of fun." It's got a huge sense of humour, a massive dose of fan-love for all kinds of geeky fiction (Missy references Narnia, Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, etc. etc. etc.), and a deep fascination with the superhero genre. At one point, Argent, this world's SHIELD, force Mr Mystic to work together with a very Captain America-like hero. At the same time, this is a world where superheroes are into their second or third generations, and it's openly acknowledged that many heroes of previous generations were sexist, racist, dinosaurs, in some of their attitudes.

The final ingredient is (Asian) mythology, with dragons, fox spirits, ogres, man-eating witches, very different unicorns, and more. Sometimes, mixing lots of settings / ingredients in a story can be a bit gimmicky, but Alyc Helms succeeds at bringing everything together into a whole that is as engrossing, and as enchanting, as Neil Gaiman's Sandman - i.e. she's up there with the very best of mythblenders. The fox spirits were particularly memorable. Fortunately, her style is a bit more light-handed than Gaiman's: the novel is genuinely, joyfully funny, especially early on. It includes one of the funniest romance / courtship / seduction plots I have ever come across.

If there is a flaw, it is that one sequence stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far. Dragons? Magic? Monstrous shadow dimensions? No problem. But the exact conditions under which three trials are faced and endured? Ouch. OUCH. Jesus Christ, OUCH!!! Nope, not buying it. Impossible.

Well, and the beginning, even on the second read, felt a little disorienting. I took a while to properly get the alternating then-now chapters. Sure, I should have paid closer attention to the word before each chapter, but I wonder if perhaps the Kindle formatting was off (there were no whitespaces between scenes within chapters, so maybe the chapter intros have bigger "Then" / "Now" tags in print than they do on Kindle, too. All I can say is that the Kindle version felt confusing and visual cues were missing or not noticeable enough).

Anyway: The Dragons of Heaven. Superheroes, mythologies, humour, romance, grand adventures, all in a novel that is pacey, exciting, and full of memorable and likeable characters. In a word, awesome. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5.

PS: I also wrote a review of The Dragons of Heaven the first time I read it.

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