Urban Fantasy in a cape: Alyc Helms’ The Dragons of Heaven
The Dragons of Heaven is an odd book. Admittedly, it was odd enough to catch my interest, so there’s something to be said for that.
It’s about Missy Masters, a street magician in San Fransisco who has taken up the title (and shadow-dimension superpowers) of her grandfather, the late Mr. Mystic. So we start off with a gender-bending, pulp-legacy superhero? Sounds promising.
Things get more complicated, however, when figures from Missy’s past come into play. The book alternates between “now” and “then” chapters, in which we learn about how Missy traveled to China to train under Jian Huo, the same Dragon (as in, a literal Chinese Celestial Dragon) that her grandfather did. It’s worth noting that Missy (and her grandfather’s) shadow powers don’t have anything to do with Chinese Dragon magic, but hey, it’s useful to have somebody so ancient teaching you tricks anyway. Most of my knowledge of Chinese folklore comes from Tsui Hark movies, so I kind of wonder if the various Dragon-people Missy runs into are of greater legendary significance.
Of course, Jian Huo also takes the form of a very pretty Chinese man with long bishonen hair, and that’s when I realized this wasn’t really a superhero novel.
Instead of being a ‘secret origin’ kind of training montage, the “then,” chapters play out as a romance, dealing with Missy falling in luuuuurve with Jian Huo, and dealing with magical in-laws (who don’t like her much, on account of her being a mortal and a westerner and all that), and even having kids. Said kids are eventually kidnapped by Jian Huo’s evil brother, who’s basically Chinese Dragon Satan.
This ties into the “now,” plot, as the various goings on are all an evil plot of Chinese Dragon Satan, of course. Really, once the plot gets going, the book reads a lot more like an Urban Fantasy than a Superhero book. You’ve got a snarky first person protagonist with mysterious magical powers, a handful of creatures from folklore, and, of course, the super pretty magical boyfriend
To be honest, I think the book would’ve been stronger (if maybe a little less easily marketed) as a straight urban fantasy. Helms makes allusions to a wider world of superheroics, with a SHIELD-esque private superheroing company, mask-specific legislation, and even a state-sponsored Chinese superhero team. Thing is, most of these elements fall to the sidelines in favor of highlighting the whole Jian Huo plot.
The best superheroes can have their origins summed up in a sentence or two. Superman is the last survivor of an alien planet. Batman is an orphan who trained himself to become a detective ninja. Wolverine is a Canadian superweapon with knife hands, and so on. Missy’s whole ‘Street Magician pretending to be her Grandfather, and also hanging out with Celestial Chinese Dragons’ background is reaching Hawkman levels of convolutedness.
Despite her kitchen sink background, Missy is kind of a blank character. She’s the sarcastic, overwhelmed, and slightly nerdy narrator you’ve probably read in a dozen other Urban Fantasy books. On top of that, Missy is a largely reactive character; Missy is clever, sure, but she doesn’t really read as exceptionally tough or resourceful- there’s never a big ‘fuck yes!’ kind of moment. he whole culmination of the plot is basically Chinese Dragon Satan twirling his proverbial mustache and going “ha ha ha just as planned.” The thing is, most of Chinese Dragon Satan’s evil schemes revolve around “guanxi,” a code of Chinese face/honor. Which, considering Missy is a foreigner, it would’ve been really gratifying to have her go “yeahnope, I’m going to be a bastard and not follow your rules.” I mean, being a cheaty, clever bastard is what good Urban Fantasy protagonists do.
Unsurprisingly for a book set (at least for the first few chapters) in San Fransisco, there’s a bit of a queer undercurrent to the book. This stood out at me early on, as Missy describes her first impression of one of her friends as “a pretty little gothic lolita.” I wrote this off as just an odd turn of phrase until about the last third of the book, where Missy is almost seduced by a Kitsune (okay, she’s Chinese, so the proper term is “huxian,” but it’s still “sexy fox-lady spirit.”) It’s kind of interesting, though, as Missy never out and out says “I’m bisexual” at any point in the book, it’s just more or less taken for granted that she likes sexy people of all sorts. And, being in an Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance novel, she’s surrounded by them. Likewise, Missy’s grandfather had … a thing going with Jian Huo that’s not elaborated on, but still kind of eyebrow raising. I mean, your grandpa’s ex? Weeeeeeird. Still, I’m a sucker for media with kung fu lesbians, so points there.
The Dragons of Heaven is about one quarter superhero novel, and the rest an Urban Fantasy. It’s an interesting combination, but the book would’ve benefited from more focus. Between the shadow dimension, other superheroes in general, and the Chinese mythology, there’s a lot of stuff going on. In comics, this kitchen sink approach can work, because guys like Dr. Strange and Iron Man each have their own established history from their own comic books, so nobody bats an eye when you have a wizard and a mad scientist in the Avengers at the same time. However, in the span of a single novel, Helms doesn’t have the room to really flesh out the setting as much as she could, and so the whole Chinese Urban Fantasy thing awkwardly hogs the spotlight.
The Dragons of Heaven is the first in a series, and sets some stuff up for further adventures down the line. I’m curious enough to see where the second book leads, to see if Helms can use the added experience to tighten up her writing. This said, I’m not exactly in a hurry for the next book, either.