Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson

I've decided to start doing book reviews on here, at least those that I think the readers of OV might be interested in. These reviews won't necessarily be timely; I mostly just read books that catch my fancy, rather than going for whatever happens to be the latest release on the shelves.

I'd like to start of with a novel with one of the most original science fiction premises I've seen in quite some time: The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson.

The story is a fairly rare breed of novel: alternate history projected into the future. In a world where the European nations never rose to global dominance, Earth is divided between two powers: Imperial China and the Aztec-populated Mexic Dominion. Now, in what another reality would be the year 2052, these two bitter rivals are fighting a war for global dominance that spills out into interplanetary space. Of particular contention is the newly-colonized red planet Fire Star, aka Mars.

The novel’s back story is, as with most alternate history tales, an odd mixture of fascinating details and jarring juxtapositions. Roberson has obviously done very extensive research into his subject matter, and has built up his alternate timeline through a number of previously published stories.

Decades before Christopher Columbus, Imperial China sends ‘treasure fleets’ around the known world, reaching India, the Middle East, and eventually Europe. This results in the establishment of the trade routes the Portuguese and Spanish would have otherwise created a century later. The main difference here is that the vast wealth created by these new global markets flows east instead of west, assuring China’s new prominence in world affairs. Later Treasure fleets even reach the Pacific coast of the Western Continent, called Vinland here, and set up a Khalifate in honor of the expedition’s Muslim captain.

The Chinese also take Leonardo Da Vinci’s advanced designs seriously, allowing them to develop some technologies much earlier than in our timeline, such as flying machines. Combined with their burgeoning trade empire, these new devices soon allow them to dominate the globe.

Oddly, a version of the USA does arise in this world, called the Commonwealth of Vinland, complete with the original 13 english colonies, a revolution in 1776, and the later annexation of Texas. But it, like most of the rest of the globe, is eventually conquered by the imperial Dragon Throne in the late nineteenth century.

To the casual reader, the Empire at first does not sound like an overly pleasant place to live. It is still primarily a feudal monarchy, with many strictures on freedom and behavior we would be find uncomfortable at best, oppressive at worst. A towering bureaucracy dominates most facets of life, especially in the armed forces.

In many ways the Empire is also a romanticized version of old Imperial China, albeit with spaceships and nuclear reactors. The author, through the characters of the novel, shows that its a place where honor and tradition still holds great sway, and many of its citizens are proud of their nation’s glorious imperial past. The children of the Dragon Throne can still give birth to heroism and idealism, even if those heroic values and ideals don’t necessarily reflect the ones we’re used to.

Whatever the Celestial Empire’s failings, however, the novel quickly makes clear that it is a cuddly wuddly panda compared to the Mexic Dominion.

The Dominion is peopled by the descendants of the Aztecs, who in this timeline were never conquered by the Spanish. Because of their position on the globe, they were also among the last powers to come under the scrutiny of the Chinese, allowing them plenty of time to develop near-equal technology and resources of their own.

The problem is that the war-like Mexica still cling very tenaciously to Aztec religion, which makes frequent human sacrifice a central tenet. It has become so incorporated into their culture, in fact, that spaceships and orbital stations cannot even operate unless a live human sacrifice is performed regularly on altars on the bridge, which are equipped with sophisticated hemoglobin sensors to make sure the victims bleed enough to please the gods. Many die in this manner in the Mexic Dominion everyday, and the Dominion’s preferred source of sacrifices are, unsurprisingly, the citizens of its Imperial rival.

In the early twentieth century, the two powers fought a vicious fifteen year long World War that resulted in a victory for the Chinese and well over a hundred years of simmering hatred and resentment for the Dominion. Now, with the colonization and terraformation of Fire Star well underway, a new war has broken out, with space as its main battlefield.

It is in this world that we find our main characters, misfits and scoundrels and criminals all, being recruited and trained for a suicidal mission to destroy a Mexic asteroid base. If they succeed in their mission, they will be pardoned for their crimes. If not, well, no one will miss them anyway.

The novel’s main story derives very obviously from similar great action tales on film such as The Dirty Dozen, The Guns Of Navarone, and even The Magnificent Seven. In lesser hands this might have been a detriment, but the plot is handled deftly, and could even be considered a decent tribute to those movies. But even so, it follows a familiar formula; a small group of misfits and ne’er-do-wells take on an impossible-seeming mission with all odds against them. They all know death likely awaits them, but perhaps a lucky few can find redemption as well.

In fact, the story’s resemblance to those films is so strong that I had a hard time not picturing Yao, the main focus of much of the story, as a Yul Brynner type. Yao is a Bannerman (the Imperial equivalent of a Marine), a commander who asked too many question about why his superiors apparently allowed the Mexica to slaughter thousands of Fire Star colonists while his unit stood helplessly by, under orders not to interfere. He was sentenced to be executed for his insubordination, but was given a reprieve to ride herd on the other misfits assigned to the mission.

Joining him in command is Captain Zhuan, who was disciplined for cowardice for failing follow a suicidal order that would have destroyed his ship and his crew. But his actual reasons were far from noble; he simply was afraid to die. Now, facing a similar choice on this new mission, he wonders if he can find the courage to follow through and regain some semblance of honor.

The rest of the characters fall into various war movie cliches. There’s the immensely strong but dimwitted ‘man mountain,’ the cocky gunfighter, the shifty sneak thief, the practical joker, the lazy slacker, and the pugnacious hothead, all apparently right from the Celestial Empire’s version of Hollywood central casting. Some of them come across as entertaining; others seem a clunky fit for the story. The one breath of fresh air here was Syuxtun, a Muslim whose deep moral convictions had forced him to commit a surprising act of sabotage against his superiors.

Even the more awkward stock characters in and of themselves might not have been such a bad thing if they had not ended up revealing their back stories in such annoying ways. Too many times, the author depends on long, unbroken monologues to tell their stories, often at very in appropriate times dramatically. At one point the ship they’ve stolen from the Mexic is about to have its nuclear core melt-down and one of the crew may have to bleed on the altar to save everybody; so, of course, it’s a perfect time for a five-page segue as a minor character yabbers on about his life story.

Their mission is also complicated by the fact that once they reach the Mexic asteroid base, they find dozens of Imperial citizens held captive, waiting to be sacrificed. Their mission of sabotage suddenly becomes an even more impossible rescue mission, as they try to accomplish one last decent act among all their misdeeds.

Can these nine expendable criminals become the saviors for dozens of trapped innocents? Can they destroy the asteroid base as planned and stop the Dominion attacks on Fire Star? At what cost?

If you’ve seen any of the aforementioned material which was the obvious inspiration for The Dragon’s Nine Sons, you already have a good idea on how things will generally turn out. But novels like these are like amusement park rides; just because you know how its going to end doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the twists and turns along the way. The author’s shortcomings with character exposition are minor compared to how he handles both the action and the often very fascinating details of his alternate world. All in all, an admirable effort and a good read for fans of science fiction and alternate history alike.