White Tiger

by Kylie Chan

Published by HarperCollins Australia

264 pages, 2006




Bui Hu and Mary-Sue

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


A young Australian woman named Emma, living and working in Hong Kong, is hired as a nanny for Simone, the adorable small daughter of millionaire John Chen, who is a hunk and kind as well. Emma doesn't take long to fall in love with the man she thinks, at first, is a spy. He isn't a spy. Emma soon finds out that he is, in fact, a Chinese god, personification of the north wind, a god of martial arts, weather and water, whose True Form is a turtle and that all the visitors to the house are also gods.

Chen had married a mortal, Simone's mother, and been dumb enough to promise his wife that he wouldn't take True Form, something he has to do regularly or his "batteries" will run down. His wife is dead, but if he takes True Form now he will be stuck in it for years and be unable to protect his child. So he has been getting gradually weaker and every demon in Hell is after him. The Demon King has offered a huge price for his head and the way to get it is through his daughter, by taking her hostage. Chen has a bodyguard for the child, fierce Afro-American Leo, who knows their secret and has some special training in demon-slaying, but it just isn't going to be enough. Emma loves the child as well as her father. Time for the nanny to get some training in martial arts and demon-slaying.

When I was first discovering Star Trek fandom many years ago, there was only one version, no spin-offs, and it had been canceled, so we were writing our own. The stories varied from space opera to comedy to romance. A part of the last-mentioned was the sub-genre known as "Mary Sue."

Mary Sue -- whose adventures continue to this day in various science fictional and fantasy universes -- was a sort of supergirl. She was brilliant and beautiful and amazingly gifted in everything. She saved the ship and often the universe, in the company of the powerful man whose love she had gained (in those days it was usually Mr. Spock, but could be any member of the crew, depending on the author's preferences). She was generally the alter-ego of a new writer trying her first steps in fiction.

"Mary Sue" is often used as a derogatory term. Myself, I thoroughly enjoy a well-written tale of this kind; they can be a lot of fun. To me, at least, White Tiger reads like an entertaining Mary Sue. The heroine, Emma, is brilliant and brave and beautiful and everyone admires her, even the villains. Like Mary Sue, she wins the love of a powerful man: in this case, of course, a Chinese god. She learns martial arts very quickly, as well as magical techniques to help in demon-slaying. She doesn't save the universe -- perhaps this will happen in the next two books in the trilogy -- but she does save the child and even Leo the bodyguard.

White Tiger also reads like a cross between The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and should appeal to teenage girls who enjoy Buffy. Mary Sue was always a teenage genre anyway, and despite the heroine's age -- late twenties -- this is very much young adult fiction. It's probably too female-centred to appeal to boys, though.

The author has great confidence in her material. She lived for several years in Hong Kong and knows it well. She also has martial arts skills. It is refreshing, too, to read a story centred around Chinese mythology instead of the Celtic stuff that forms the basis of so much fantasy these days, and there is a useful glossary at the back of the book. There are also some likable characters, such as the White Tiger of the title, Bai Hu, the West Wind. Tiger is a cheekily lecherous character who impresses women in his cuddly tiger form and has managed to get himself a harem of women who know what they have let themselves in for and don't mind a bit.

Though much of White Tiger is entertaining, I think the book would have worked better if about a third had been cut. I was waiting for those lunches with Emma's two friends, April and Louise, to have some significance to the story, and for April's unpleasant husband to turn out to be working with the demons. It didn't happen. Neither did Emma's old employer, Kitty Kwok, nasty as she was, turn out to be the Queen of the Demons or an evil sorceress. She just kept nagging Emma to visit her. There were quite a number of scenes that simply didn't move the story along and the romantic elements were often overwhelming. How many times is it necessary for Emma and John to gaze yearningly at each other and declare themselves to be "a pair of idiots/fools"? Much of the rest of the novel is dedicated to Emma's training, presumably as a set-up for the next two volumes.

I suspect the main reason for the slight feeling of bloat here is the entire trilogy thing. This really would be better as two volumes of fast-moving story, but has been padded out to make a trilogy. Consequently, despite all those battles against demons, the pace is slower than it should be. And this is a pity, because it's a great idea and could really be a rip-roaring page-turner with lots of humor and lots of the martial arts that are so popular in fiction and movies these days. Hopefully, Volumes two and three, having been set up, will get on with it. | September 2006


Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.