The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms
Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.
Lung Huang isn’t quite as ancient as Missy expected, and a romantic interlude embroils her in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di-Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy-raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier.
As Missy prepares to confront Lung Di, she faces a tough decision: remain loyal to Lung Huang and see China destroyed, or side with the bad guy and save the world.
Alyc Helms did doctoral work in anthropology and folklore. She refers to her own work as “critical theory fanfic.” The Dragons of Heaven straddles the divisions between mythology, pulp adventure, superhero comic, and bathetic tragedy. Count me in.
The main character shares some of the essential romance and complexity of Watchmen‘s Night Owl II. A creative and capable second generation hero adopting the identity of an established name to both jump start a career and carry on the good work. Missy Masters’ story takes her from innocence to experience and paradoxically back again.
The novel unfolds along two timelines. As a contemporary tragedy forces the new Mr. Mystic back toward estranged former friends and allies, Helms employs a parallel series of flashbacks exploring the development of those relationships. The text develops in counterpoint, with each subsequent chapter building on the one before, simultaneously deepening understanding of the past and the present.
This unhurried, disciplined approach pays off for the reader over time. You’re forced to consider the ramifications of single actions even if you’re able to guess what’s coming next. And depending on your familiarity with the genres involved, you may be able to guess a lot.
While I can’t certify or critique the fidelity of the representations of Chinese culture, part of the story is, essentially, an entitled white American blundering in and getting lost in a semiological field beyond her understanding. She does the best she can under the circumstances and the reader is able to evaluate her actions on their own merits. The first person narration reinforces this.
Like the cover blurb says, The Dragons of Heaven is fun. It’s a mashup of epic genres. It’s an action packed romance spanning decades and continents.
Recommended for fans of Jack Burton, Astro City, and Tea from an Empty Cup.