The view was nice, but the food was bad (meh)**
In The Dragons of Heaven, Missy Masters is trying to live up to her grandfather’s legacy as Mr. Masters, one of the original superheroes of the mid-twentieth century. We are introduced to her present-day struggles to be taken seriously and to defeat a Chinatown crime boss in San Francisco. The narrative is split between the present-day and some time in Missy’s past. It’s also split between San Francisco and China. In one plot line, Missy is a superheroine fighting crime when mysterious magical walls spring up around all Chinatowns in the world, and around China itself. This launches Missy into the world-saving business, as she is the only person who can dissolve the walls. In the other, she travels to China to learn from a Dragon and become a better superheroine. I really liked some aspects of this book. It’s difficult for me to even describe the plot, because it was so disjointed. The divide between the San Francisco superheroine plot line and the Chinese spiritual adventure was too wide. The split-time narratives never connected. The story feels like two stories, instead of one. Part of this is the organization, which, while chapters are divided into “now” and “then,” does not provide enough signposts to clearly separate the two times.
The other part is the emotional distance between the two times. At first, the reader meets Missy in San Francisco, where she’s essentially a street magician-turned-superheroine. Without much introduction at all, the reader then jumps back into Missy’s past, when she has just started her work as a superheroine, and decides she needs training and experience, so she travels to China to learn from the same Dragon her grandfather did. The reader doesn’t find out until much later on, about the climax of the book, why Missy left China to return to San Francisco (there are deeper reasons than her original goal to return a better superheroine). There’s some sadness, betrayal, involved – but the San Francisco Missy never really feels it. This puts even more distance between “then” and “now” plot lines, making them seem even less connected.
The “then” narrative, which tells of Missy’s trials to get to the Dragon in China, was delightful. I loved reading about her time as Jian Huo/Lung Huang’s student, and the development of their relationship. Her adventures fighting against demons and shadow creatures, and her struggles to learn Taoism, were highly enjoyable. I loved meeting all the strange and wonderful spirit creatures that inhabit the China she lives in. I think this is where the novel really shines.
However, I felt that the broken storyline ruined its impact. Too much was glossed over in deference to having both a “now” plot line and a “then” plot line. In fact, I wasn’t very interested at all in the beginning, which sets up the world-saving business and describes her life in San Francisco. I wasn’t emotionally drawn into her life or her story until the younger Missy went to China. The ending suffered from the same lack of emotional feeling as most of the “now” plot line. As a reader, I felt the hurt and betrayal that ended in separation (when I finally learned about it), but the resolution was so short it felt like a bandaid instead of healing.
The other thing I really liked about this story is the reliance on Chinese folklore and spiritualism. The complex etiquette of dealing with spirits and gods, the rituals required, the spirits themselves, and the bits and pieces of Taoism were fascinating. I loved that Missy was able to provide an outsider’s perspective on the folklore and spiritualism of China, but it felt colonial for the heroine to be a red-headed descendant of the British, traveling to China to soak up the culture and knowledge so she could bring it back to San Francisco and to save the world.
Sometimes the pace felt dragged out, while the most important events were not given enough attention. The final battles in both time periods felt rushed. In the end, there are hints that there is more to come – more reconciliation between lovers, final determination of the heroine’s status, and one final Heroine vs. Sociopath battle. This is one of those books I wish felt complete in one volume.
In the end, I did not find what I was looking for in this story. I would have loved a story with a straight narrative, starting with Missy’s first steps as a superheroine, spending the majority of the story in China with Jian Huo, and then culminating in the Big Battle, the Betrayal, and the Reconciliation. Try it if you’re interested in Chinese spirits and dragons, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.
*Advance reader copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
**Review originally published as “Disappointed in “Dragons of Heaven”
If you’re looking for a fantasy set in China, here’s a steampunk-flavored one that I enjoyed:
For a witty superheroine story, definitely check out:
The Hero and The Crown contains a similar relationship with a magical wizard/immortal on a mountain. Bonus: it’s one of my favorite childhood reads.