Kylie Chan’s fantasy novels – White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Black Jade and a bunch of other colours – are endemic to bookshops at present. I haven’t yet read any of Chan’s work but the novels all bear stunning covers and are, apparently, well-regarded, and it was only a matter of time before I caved into the pressure and bought one.
Thank goodness, then, for the Never Never Book Box subscription, for which the centrepiece novel of its March box is Chan’s newest, Scales of Empire. The first in a new trilogy of space-opera epic science fiction, the cover is just as spectacular as we have come to expect from Harper Collins and the back-cover text promises much.
“Corporal Jian Choumali is on the mission of a lifetime – security officer on one of Earth’s huge generation ships, fleeing Earth’s failing ecosystem to colonise a distant planet.
The ship encounters a technologically and culturally advanced alien empire, led by a royal family of dragons. The empire’s dragon emissary offers her aid to the people of Earth, bringing greater health, longer life, and faster-than-light travel to nearby stars.
But what price will the people of Earth have to pay for the generous alien assistance?” (from Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Scales-Empire-Dragon-Kylie-Chan-ebook/dp/B06XFP7DH2/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8)
What a pity that the back cover text and the spectacular cover do not represent the quality of the story inside. Reading the back cover, one is led to expect a hard sci-fi story about the struggles of a generation ship, deep intrigue of interplanetary politics, and potential conflict with alien cultures. Instead, we get a largely Earth-bound story about gender-fluid sex. Much of the cover text is flat-out wrong: the touted “generation ship” never launches, Earth’s “failing ecosystem” is magically repaired about sixty pages into the book, and the aliens come to Earth, rather than encountering the ship.
Misleading cover text is hardly a new thing or a hanging offence. More problematic is Chan’s prose style. Chan writes in first-person and a breathless train of consciousness, which might work for some authors, but she does it with virtually no exposition. I’ve seen writing advice from popular authors that this is the current fashion – to avoid description or introspection in favour of action, action and more action.
But you need to have something happen for that action to be important. There have to be stakes, and this is the novel’s great failing. There are no clear antagonists. What stakes there might have been get waved away by magic technology early on in the book.
Climate change has decimated the Earth – population has fallen to about a billion. Seas have risen and claimed large portions of the landmass. Nation-blocs are at each other’s throats, and mankind itself is on a decline towards extinction, leading to the need for generation ships. The first 30-odd pages of the novel are about the main character’s recruitment to the colony ship program and they do a fair job of sketching a civilisation in decline.
But then the aliens appear and everything changes. In short order the climate is restored, landmasses reclaimed, and humanity has been provided with technology, health, and offers of assistance for interplanetary colonisation efforts.
The planet’s temperature is decreased (magically and without fanfare, “offscreen” – a character simply says that it’s happened) and the ice caps recover, so suddenly there’s heaps of land again. If the environmental threat to the planet and species was the main driver of stakes here, then it’s over by quarter of the way through the book.
Chan wants to focus instead on the aliens and their intentions for Earth. Apparently the aliens are completely benevolent – but do they have an ulterior motive for their help? It takes almost two thirds of the novel before any real danger or challenge appears – to the main characters, or to the autonomy of Earth and its governments. Before this, there’s nothing for the characters to overcome, no stakes.
Kylie Chan spends far more time talking about the main characters having sex (or refusing to have sex) with dragons, than she does talking about nation states or interplanetary intrigue. It becomes a major plot point whether dragons deliberately or naturally inspire unthinking devotion in other species, and the overarching theme of the novel is about free will, and how it interacts with needing assistance from others.
If the novel’s primary failings are thematic, it doesn’t help that it’s so poorly written or edited. Chan has a real problem with telling, rather than showing. Constantly we are told how people are feeling or what their motivations are, rather than inferring this from their dialogue or actions. The narrator / main character is a telepath and possibly she is able to sense some of this – emotions, attempts to mislead – but it’s still bad writing for the reader to be told about someone’s emotions rather than shown them. And if we’re not being told flatly what characters are feeling, events are being described in dialogue – but it’s bad dialogue.
“Alien invasion! Look at the size of that ship! It just popped into existence next to the Brittania.” That’s the way Chan introduces the arrival of an alien emissary, the first time humans have ever encountered extraterrestrial life – by having an unnamed extra character announce its appearance.
The aliens themselves are unconvincing in the extreme. Chan fills her book with dragons (never described – are we talking Chinese dragons, Tolkien dragons, Komodo dragons?) and humanoid cats. She then adds feathered dinosaurs, giant slugs and “an alien very much like a three-metre-long six-legged Old English sheepdog” (complete with wagging tail and predilection for chasing things). The aliens all speak in modern vernacular. The eight-hundred year old princess dragon emissary sounds like a teenager: “Nah, I think I’ll stick with these two. Richard’s hot and Jian’s super-smart. Lead on.” The amount of time the princess dragon spends talking about “love” (which is totally not just about sex, although yes, it’s really about sex) rather than the way the Empire works or is governed, just makes her seem immature.
A great deal of the text is written in passive voice. Laser beams shoot through space, rather than people or ships firing them. People fall dead, and the reader has to reverse-engineer what just happened to them because nowhere in the text does it say that someone fired a weapon. On far too many occasions I had to re-read a passage in order to identify who was doing what to whom, and sometimes it wasn’t even clear after detailed consideration.
There are major problems with the plot. The novel begins as a Japanese generation ship, launched 300 years earlier, is approaching its destination. So the Japanese have sent their ship on a 300-year journey, and the other nations don’t think to send their own ships (to different destinations) until they hear the results? By the time the other nations are getting ready to launch, it’s clear that the Japanese ship / colony has failed, so what were the other nations waiting for? If the threat to their nations is that dire that evacuation of the Earth is important, why wait three hundred years? The dragons appear with an offer of assistance and suddenly every nation and its dog is putting together a colony ship and will be ready to go in months?
The seas have risen and people exist on mountainsides and artificial terraced islands, growing water-crops like rice and coffee. Yet water is rationed and you can’t even have baths/regular showers. We have desalination technology now in the 21st century. The date of this novel is not given but at one point the dragons (magically and without fanfare) reset the CO2 in the atmosphere to “mid twenty-second century levels”.
The technology throughout the book is entirely inconsistent. In the hundreds of years between the 21st century and whenever this book is set (sometime after the 22nd century, and at least 300 years from the near future) mankind has not developed aquatic cities, interplanetary or moon colonies, convincing prosthetics or gene technology, all things that are currently under active development. Kylie Chan has clearly done a modicum of research in a few areas – the requirements for a generation ship project and some of the detail of the interplanetary colonies that get founded during the story show a grasp of detail. But this level of detail is scant. For most of the novel, there appears to be no clear or consistent understanding of what the near future will actually be like. Military officers still carry ‘revolvers’.
The novel goes out of its way to describe a sexually-fluid society. The main character Choumali has a wife and a husband and this is unremarkable. Yet the other main human character gets shocked and dismayed when he learns that the dragon emissary has multiple spouses and children.
The ending is just as risible as the opening. The denouement of the story revolves around a highly effective non-lethal weapon that can be used against one of the antagonists of the story, the aforementioned humanoid cats. The dragons are a peaceable race that prefer not to fight, and run from any engagement. Apparently, though, so do every other race of beings in this vast dragon empire. We’re supposed to believe that among trillions of sentient beings and thousands of years of scientific development, humanity is the only one to have developed non-lethal weaponry? The host of intelligent races that make up the Empire hail the arrival of humans as the salvation of their many different peoples, as if Mankind’s warlike past is somehow unique. Yet the Dragon empire has been visiting the planet for millennia to shape the development of Mankind. Couldn’t they have picked up a stock of rubber bullets on one of their previous visits?
There are some interesting concepts on display here, the most intriguing being the idea of spaceships being little more than cargo holds that their dragon pilots drag with them. The dragons can ‘fold’ through space, instantly teleporting themselves and whatever they’re holding to another place. Combine this with the idea that dragons can procreate with other species, and their part-human descendants could then pilot spacecraft, and you have the possibility for drama as Earth officials try to balance the ethics and practical considerations of breeding part-humans for a specific purpose. Other species have faster-than-light travel, but this is still far slower than the dragons – a single interstellar journey, which might take a week in relativistic time (for the pilot) takes decades from an external perspective. Probably the most promising element of the book is the sentient AI Marque, even if its capabilities do sometimes verge on being a deus ex machina – I would expect to learn more about Marque in the next books in the series.
These interesting concepts, married with a space-operatic story full of dragons, telepaths, murderous felines and space colonies (and lots and lots of gender-fluid sex) should have resulted in a fun, thought-provoking read. Unfortunately the amateur prose and the failure of the author to fulfil the primary function of a novel – to convincingly convey the narrative of the story – makes it a hard slog. The first in a new trilogy, I won’t be hurrying to pick up the sequel.