The Dragons of Heaven (2015), by Alyc Helms, is a rowdy festival of fantasy genres, expertly managed by the writer. You’ve got an urban fantasy set-up with the caped-heroes angle; you’ve got Chinese folklore, dragons, shadow realms, and conventional magic; and also, for part of the book, a family saga. It’s an exciting, eclectic read.
Here is the visual of this book for me: Helms is juggling many tropes and themes. It’s like she’s got three flaming torches, a couple of clubs, a pineapple, a strawberry, and a chainsaw all whirling through the air. I may think she doesn’t need the strawberry, but everything’s moving in rhythm, so maybe I’m wrong. The story has good momentum and the characters are engaging. Helms’s visual descriptions, especially of dimensions that are different from ours, are dramatic and believable. Along the way, though, there is a tiny bit of handwaving, particularly about the main character’s backstory. Some of this is explained by the fact that The Dragons of Heaven is book one of the MR. MYSTIC / MISSY MASTERS series (more will be revealed in Book Two, The Conclave of Shadow) but some of it just isn’t explained in a way that’s internally consistent, at least not to my satisfaction. I didn’t feel that my attention was derailed, but I noticed these gaps throughout the story and they nagged at me.
The Dragons of Heaven starts in San Francisco, in a world where superheroes and caped heroes exist and there are special laws and ordinances written for them. Mitchell Masters, who goes by “Mr. Mystic,” is one of Silver Age heroes, a shadow mage — also thought by many to be a white-supremacist colonialist bigot. “Mr. Mystic” is actually Missy Masters, the original hero’s secret granddaughter. She has inherited her grandfather’s ability to move through the Shadow Realm and see the shadow entities who live there. This nice bit of genre-bending plays throughout the book. Missy is friends with one of the Chinatown Guardians, a group of four magical beings who protect China wherever it is in the world (that means most Chinatowns; each Chinatown has its guardians). Suddenly, a huge magical barrier surrounds Chinatown, blocking any and all entrances or exits, and as news comes in, the appears to be the case for every single community of expatriate Chinese, as well as the entire nation of China. Missy has to go to China… or rather, back to China, because, did I mention she spent fifteen years there in a pocket universe and was the lover of one of the Nine Dragons of Heaven? No? Well, she did….. and she has to fix things.
From this revelation the story moves back and forth in time; from Missy’s time with the dragon Lung Huang and their family (and his snobby celestial family), to the present, where “Mr. Mystic” must work with Argent, the superhero corporation he had a famous breakup with before Missy’s time, to sneak into China through the Shadow Realms and figure out how to lower the barriers. Along the way we meet several Chinese folkloric characters, like a four-tailed fox and a quirin, a creature the European unicorn somewhat resembles. We meet the slightly-more-bureaucratic Chinese version of Argent, the People’s Heroes of China, and the Shadow Triad. And we meet dragons: beautiful, powerful, dangerous and often really infuriating dragons.
Lung Huang is in exile from Heaven for giving humans the gift of writing, but his brother Lung Di is also exiled for doing much worse things. Missy gets caught between the rivalry of the two dragon brothers, both in her 15-year stay with Lung Huang and in the present, as Lung Di has set up a convoluted plot to disgrace his brother.
The Dragons of Heaven borrows gleefully from pulp action heroes to current-day deconstructionism of said heroes; from urban fantasy, Chinese fantasy and action films; and from a movie called Big Trouble in Little China, which was clearly an inspiration, and Helms clearly and gracefully acknowledges all of her sources. Throughout these adventures we get an occasional hint about Missy’s background and this is where I had some trouble with the book. There is a mystery about her parentage, which is part of the ongoing story. When she was little, her grandfather raised her. He taught her several languages and the language of the Shadow Realm. Then he disappeared. Some time later (many years later, we assume) his lawyer tracked down Missy and now, it seems, she lives off some kind of allowance from the estate, since Mitchell Masters is, I guess, presumed dead, even though Missy is impersonating him. Missy was also, she says, a street magician, and the concept of sleight-of-hand and illusion plays a part in one of the storylines. She was also a street kid for a while, I’m guessing, although it’s never explained. Suddenly, with no warning in the middle of the book, she is an expert on British folklore, pulling out an obscure spell in order to find a lost child. British folklore? How did that happen?
Missy has a shadow rat she calls Templeton who helps her. Toward the end of the book, when she gets into trouble in a realm called the void, not the Shadow Realm, she invokes Templeton by thinking, “In the name of Templeton, lieutenant in service to the Conclave of Shadow, I command you to come to my aid.” Missy wonders where these words came from. So did I. She never thinks about it again in this book, but I did.
Similarly, in an encounter with Lung Di, the dragon mocks hippies, and Missy thinks to herself, “I had to tamp down on the urge to defend my hippy roots.” Nothing about Missy says “hippy,” and when would she have had time? These tiny moments created an inconsistency for me. Fortunately, the rest of the story, and the world, were so interesting I was able to set my doubts aside. A few of them — not all — are addressed in The Conclave of Shadow.
If you liked John Carpenter’s movie Big Trouble in Little China, if you like the slightly-more-skeptical view of caped heroes that is in vogue right now, and if you like dragons, I encourage you to read The Dragons of Heaven. Check your disbelief at the door, and prepare to be entertained.