Book Review

White Tiger: Dark Heavens Book One by Kylie Chan


Title: White Tiger
Author: Kylie Chan
Publication Info: Angry Robot April 2010
ISBN: 9780732282967
Genre: Paranormal

imageEver read a book that drove you nuts in some parts, to the point that you wanted to roll your eyes for a solid hour, but yet you were compelled by curiosity, fascination, and plain old WTF to keep going? This is one of those books. I could not stop reading – it was compulsive, and when I got to the ending, which is not the ending really because this is book one of a trilogy, I was bummed that the ride was over.

Emma Donohue is an Australian in Hong Kong working in a kindergarten and tutoring part-time for private clients. Her boss at the kindergarten is a nightmare of a woman, and said nightmare pushes Emma to her limits by asking her to spy on one of her favorite clients, Mr. John Chen and his daughter, Simone. Chen is mysterious, powerful, rich, enigmatic, cranky, and austere, and his daughter, Simone, is a lovely four year old girl (really, very lovely. Unreal how lovely. And I know from four year old). Emma is attracted to Chen but tries very hard to resist the draw to him, but when she quits her job at the kindergarten and Chen asks immediately for her to be a full-time live-in nanny to Simone for an outrageous sum of money, she agrees, telling herself to remain professional (Seriously, she uses the word “professional” a half dozen times in her inner monologue). When she moves in, things get funky. And mysterious.

Chen and his bodyguard Leo tell Emma that Chen and Simone are neverending targets for kidnappers and gang members, but in reality, something entirely otherworldy is going on. Chen is indeed a target, as is Simone, but what’s after them isn’t human. And neither is Chen.

First, the good parts, the parts that made me keep going, reading nonstop for hours all afternoon on Saturday – something I rarely have time for. You’d blanch if you saw my email inbox, really. The setting rocks. The book takes place in Hong Kong, with trips to other parts of China as well as Australia, and the setting is amazingly vivid. There’s a lot of Chinese words but the context makes them mostly clear if not at least guessable. And the depth to which the book is immersed in Chinese religious culture and belief systems is hot damn incredible. Through Emma’s perspective, we learn about gods and deities, the beliefs about energy and life, and multiple planes of existence. Seriously. It’s jaw dropping. My brain is full.

Emma is familiar with Chinese culture and has been living in Hong Kong for awhile when the story begins. She’s not a total stranger to any of it, but the amount she has to learn once she enters Chen’s household means that the reader gets a massive crash course in martial arts, diet, retainers, household roles and status, holidays and gods.

And of course Emma is brilliant at every last freaking part. Helllllloooooo Mary Sue. Holy hell. There has to be a term for someone who is this much of a Mary Sue. Like, Mary Suest. Emma convinces Chen to teach her martial arts, and of course she’s the most talented human he’s seen in hundreds of years. Her instant mastery of incredibly challenging skills impresses him and any other humans or deities that happen to be around. By the end of the book, any time a problem came along, not only could Emma solve it, she’d whip it while the DJ revolved it. At one point, there’s a SECRET SURPRISE GRADUATE DEGREE, I shit you not.

The story is told in first person, which both works and stands in the way of my emotional reaction to the story because at any moment Emma could be amazing or annoying or annoying because someone’s told her again how amazing she is. I don’t mind first person, especially in stories where a somewhat ignorant protagonist is entering a completely unknown or intricate world, because most of the time in the hands of a skilled author, first person can work as a seamless introduction for both the protagonist and me, the reader. In this case, Emma could explain many cultural things, but she didn’t feel the need to over-explain when and what they were eating, which was perfectly fine by me. (I get so irritated with “And then the waitress served us kasha varnishkas. The pasta bow ties in buckwheat with seasoning were perfectly done!” Me: “Shut the hell up.”) There was enough that I understood, even if I coudln’t picture every last nuance of each item.

My problems first began with Emma’s reaction to things. When she figured out that there was something very different about Mr. Chen, she asked Leo, who said he wouldn’t tell her. So what’s a nanny to do? How about interrogate her perfectly adorable (and perfectly behaved, omg) four year old charge? Simone was all, “Nuh, uh, nanny-ma’am. Not telling you nothing,” but wow did my respect decline for Emma. On one hand she’s all professional because she’s not putting the moves on her boss, but she’ll nag the four year old for info on her father? Dear Lord. Get that man a NannyCam, stat.

What I really didn’t get was that Emma is twenty-nine years old. This reads so much like YA in the tone and style of Emma’s narration and in her impulsive stubbornness that I couldn’t believe she was nearly thirty – especially when she started asking Simone for info about Mr. Chen.

The other ancillary characters, who definitely are not what they seem, are just bowled over by Emma at every turn:

“Go out and let him rest, Emma,” Gold said. “He’s fine.” I rose and turned.

“Emma,” Gold said behind me.

I turned back. Both of them were watching me with admiration.

“You were fantastic,” Leo said. “You stayed calm, you helped -any other woman would have freaked out.”

“He’s right,” Gold said.


It is a repeated point that Emma is cold-blooded. Many different characters tell her this about herself, which she doesn’t seem bothered by in the least. She’s calm in a crisis, but where they get this cold blooded idea I don’t know. There’s a handful of examples but none are all that shocking that I understand comparisons to reptiles. It’s not like she metes justice with a complete absence of emotion all the time or something. Emma is either ridiculously daft and immature or cold and calm and mature. Something about Emma is very much in conflict with herself.

Obviously, Emma was the epicenter of my problems with the story. The other characters were consistent, if simplistic. Simone was ridiculous perfect (oh, that all nanny jobs were as simple as that one) and Leo shifted from one of three moods (angry, really angry, or quiet, with the occasional appearance of mellow, shortly replaced by angry) and Chen was enigmatic and firm, but Emma drove me up a freaking wall.

She’s annoying.

The characters are boxed narrowly in characterization and motivation.

It’s repetitive (I’m tempted to search to see how many time the words “fools,” “foolish,” “remarkable” are used.”)

And yet? I couldn’t stop reading it! I couldn’t! It was like Hong Kong-set narrative crack!

I don’t know if it was the adventure and the battles, the mythology and folklore playing out in a contemporary setting, or the ever-increasing risks and stakes that are being faced by all the characters collectively, but no matter how annoyed I was, I kept turning the page, and I want to read the next one, and the next one after that. And these books won’t be released in the US until April.


White Tiger is available for pre-order from I haven’t found other vendors, yet.  It may also appear in stock at Book Depository. This book was released in Australia in 2006, and will be printed in the US in April 2010.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sheila says:

    Love the review…sounds like the sort of book that would drive me crazy but I’d pick it up because of the setting and mysterious plot.

    What I really didn’t get was that Emma is twenty-nine years old. This reads so much like YA in the tone and style of Emma’s narration and in her impulsive stubbornness that I couldn’t believe she was nearly thirty – especially when she started asking Simone for info about Mr. Chen.

    All I can say is that you haven’t met the almost thirty and above thirty year old women I work with.  They are totally capable of doing the same thing.

  2. 2
    Susan Shay says:

    Thank you for the warning! I definitely won’t be buying the book. I don’t care how many live 30-year-olds today act that way, I’m not about to pay $$ to have them in my house—or a book about them.
    Enjoyed the review though. Very good.
    Susan Shay

  3. 3

    Nice review, Sarah, and thanks for not spoilerizing the ending. My brother lives in Hong Kong, so I’m curious to read this and cast him in all the faceless waiter and rickshaw operator and Kung Fu Bad-Ass #3 roles.

    Question, though: does it look like Emma will be the protagonist through all the books in the trilogy? I’m not sure she sounds like someone I’d want to spend 1,200 pages with, and I hate not finishing a series.

  4. 4
    Edie says:

    Love these books! And am glad they are getting a wider release!

  5. 5
    Freiya says:

    The books are wonderful and I had no problems with Emma because the rest of the story was just so damn amazing- the books get better too. Some of the irritating character flaws are explained later in the series too.
    Definately worth a read!!

  6. 6
    Miranda says:

    Sounds like a book that I want to read but NOT until the entire trilogy is available.

  7. 7
    Angela James says:

    Sarah, I didn’t know you read this. We could have talked about it this past week!

    The books are very good (I paid to have them exported to me from Australia when they released several years ago). Cara, Emma is the protaganist through all of the books, and though she’s a bit of a Mary Sue (and though the books—especially the first one—have some lagging pacing that could have stood to be trimmed in parts) the books are fascinating in the characters, the story and the world building.

    However: fair warning—the third book of the trilogy does not tie up the story. I’ve been waiting at least 18 months for the next book to come out so I can find out what happens next. Long wait! Hopefully US readers won’t have to wait as long.

  8. 8

    Haven’t read the book but probably will because I love learning about other cultures, myths, heroes and stuff.

    One thing to keep in mind about “cold” heroines is the ancient efforts to obliterate the life-giving female half of the creation myths. It’s been so successful that even in these so-called enlightened days Bill Napoli can hold office.

    One example of defining and degrading and controlling women is the myth of Tiamat and Marduk:  There was this guy, see, who volunteered to kill the Great Mother, Tiamat, but he’d do it only if all the other guys let him be king if he won the fight. So the guy, Marduk, snuck into the great mother’s womb to figure out how to kill her. Eventually (as it had to be for this myth to win) Marduk killed Tiamat by shooting an arrow into her distended belly and splitting her heart. Loud rejoicing among the guys! And Marduk, now that he was top dog, decided to create the universe from parts of her dead body: he pierced her now sightless eyes, and her tears became two rivers, the fluid from her breasts that he stabbed fed the two rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) and then he used her now lifeless pubis to support the sky. Then he killed her favorite son in order to create people to worship him. Talk about cold!

    Hammurabi’s code—Written in Stone, remember—constrained women’s rights legally, and pretty soon eunuchs were guarding the property of men and said property was wrapped in veils from head to toe…you know the rest.

    There are instances all over the place of the rebranding of women—to serve the interests of those who held power by force.

    I’m hoping the powerful river of these “trashy’ books about love that we read will become the next great flood and Tiamat will pull herself together and right the balance.

    No more virgin sacrifice!

  9. 9
    Joan Sherwood says:

    Technical crx for the author info. It’s Kylie Chan, not Chen.

  10. 10
    Angela James says:

    Oh! Have just realized 4th book is available in Australia. Now I’m going to have to figure out how to get it here. Oh how I long for digital editions because seriously? Paying 25-35 dollars plus shipping for a mass market book hurts.

  11. 11
    Estara says:

    I totally love this series for the crack it is. However I’m pretty sure that real HongKong Chinese would be utterly annoyed at the Mary Sueness of the heroine, who solves everyone’s problems, who everyone loves (even the badass black gay bodyguard and the king of demons) and who develops mystic powers just in time to save the day.

    It gets ever more cracky as the trilogy moves on and this year I’ll import the beginning of the next storyarc, Earth to Hell.

    I get my definition of crack reading from various LJ reviewers that call books that are so bad they’re fun to read.

    Incidentally, if we can love the Black Jewels Trilogy by Ann Bishop in all its cracky glory, we should be able to love this.

  12. 12
    Estara says:

    Oh how I long for digital editions because seriously? Paying 25-35 dollars plus shipping for a mass market book hurts.

    @Angela James: You and me, both! But I’ll import it, too.

  13. 13
    Estara says:

    … reread’s first comment of hers: Darn, I should have had a spoiler warning. Sorry – I got too enthusiastic once I saw this book being reviewed.

  14. 14
    Hepzibah says:

    Ahaha, I have run a search through my local library website, and they have the first three in the series! Supernatural cracky goodness is coming my way! Thanks, bitches!

  15. 15
    Tikaanidog says:

    After reading about the high degree of Mary Sue-ness, I have Uber-Sue Does Hong Kong running through my brain…

  16. 16
    HelenM says:

    In my experience, books set in Hong Kong never fall in to a middle ground – they are painfully wrong like that Theroux thing that I read, like 3 pages of, or amazingly right, like the parts of Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy that are set there. I heard about these books a while ago, and have been meaning to read them, because they sound cracky enough that I could get over any location-authenticity fail, but shipping, ouch.
    Although…I am going back later on this year, and I bet Dymocks will have them…oh god, are there still Dymocks shops in Hong Kong?

  17. 17
    Suzanna says:

    If you think Emma is annoying in the first book, then think hard about reading the next two. I loved the first book, but Emma is so full of herself in the next two. I kept reading because the Chinese mythological
    framework is so different and fascinating.

    I’ve just finished reading “Earth to hell”, which is the first book in the next trilogy. It’s moved on several years, and Emma isn’t quite as annoying. But the book is very long (595 pages), and it had no real focus. Emma & co. fight demons. Emma deals with her snake nature. Emma & co. fight more demons. Simone has school problems. Emma & co. fight yet more demons. They look for Leo. Emma & co. fight… OK, you get the idea.  John is absent for the whole book, except for a few tiny glimpses. The mythology is still interesting, but the book could have done with a good editor – it basically felt like marking time.

  18. 18
    vissy says:

    I got a good way into the first book of this series before I gave up. The premise is tempting but the prose is so flat and the lead character so annoying that I couldn’t keep on with it. Very disappointing.

  19. 19
    Mary Meerkat says:

    Interesting to say the least.  I’m not sure what to think, but I definitely have something to think about.  I might take the plunge.

  20. 20

    Angela James:

    Earth to Hell (Book 4 in the series a.k.a. Book 1 in a new trilogy) is available by mail order from Abbeys Bookshop in Sydney. They will ship to the US, but unfortunately the postage is almost the price of the book.

  21. 21

    Oh, and according to Chan’s FAQ page, the entire series is to be released in e-book by Harper Collins in AU/NZ this year.

    Angry Robot will also release the first trilogy in the rest of the world. No word on the second trilogy yet.

  22. 22
    Ash says:

    If you love the setting, I’m surprised you haven’t read anything by Marjorie Liu yet… not only are her settings rich and diverse (there’s Hong Kong, another book has Taiwan, Russia, The Congo… even Vegas!) and not only are her main characters very much NOT Mary Sues… they’re very, very, *beautifully* human – despite having some paranormal ability. All of her characters are strong yet faulty, confused yet determined. I love every single one of them.
    I really can’t recommend her enough.

  23. 23

    When it comes to book releases, for the first time I’m grateful to live in NZ!

    I’ve just read Book 4—gotta see this through to the end to find out how Emma and John get together! And I’ve just given Book 1 to my 13yo daughter—a voracious reader of paranormal YA. She loved it! Which kinda goes to show that these books do have a wider readership potential than expected. Or perhaps that was the plan all along?

    RE: Emma being cold-blooded…. LOLOL! Gee, shall we say, “not-so-subtle” foreshadowing? Sarah, you so have to read the next couple of books. Can’t wait for your reaction.

  24. 24
    sableheart says:

    I keep seeing these books in the bookstore, and wondering whether they were any good. It’s different enough to be interesting, but I need more than different to keep me engaged.

    I tend to dislike reading Chinese and Hong Kong mythologies/fantasy and pretty much anything set in China or Hong Kong unless it’s wuxia or similiar. I get too annoyed about being schooled in my own culture, and the characterisations usually grate on me, especially if they’re stereotypes. Does anyone else have this problem about their own cultures and backgrounds?

    Shipping is painful because Australia’s so far away. I should know, I regularly get stuff from overseas.

  25. 25
    Mel says:

    @Angela Jame and anyone else wanting four.

    It looks like Book has book four…well, out of stock right now but it’s on there.  Cheaper and no shipping!

  26. 26
    Saam says:

    Love the trilogy & have bought the 4th bk but haven’t read it yet. The Chinese mythology stuff is fascinating.

  27. 27
    Keziah Hill says:

    I started book one but thought it so badly written I couldn’t get into it.

  28. 28
    Estara says:

    Sarah, I just realised the heading says C- but the tags say reviews by grade: D.

  29. 29
    SB Sarah says:

    OOPS – thanks Estara. All fixed. My bad.

  30. 30
    Alex Ward says:

    I completely grant you the Mary-Sue thing, but I liked the writing, the cultural immersion and the sheer differentness of it that I ignored it.
    -sableheart: I hate Australia portrayed by most non-Aussies, especially attempts at writing dialogue, so I totally get what you mean. I thought the characters were unique and authentic, but the series was pretty much my first narrative exposure to Hong Kong so I could well have missed stereotypes
    -Maree: I know! I love the whole cold-hearted thing but until you know it makes no sense
    -Ash: sounds like I have to add Marjorie Liu to my reading list
    For anyone outside Australia interested in buying the books, have you tried or

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