Ever 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.
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 Amazon.com. 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.