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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"The Dragon's Nine Sons" by Chris Roberson

Order “The Dragon’s Nine SonsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Chris Roberson is the author of numerous short stories and novels, many of which are either connected like his Bonaventure-Carmody adventures, or take place in the same universe. In this case, “The Dragon’s Nine Sons” is a novel of the Celestial Empire, an alternate history Earth where Imperial China has become the dominant power, though not without resistance, specifically from the Aztec-inspired Mexic Dominion. Having not read any of Mr. Roberson’s previous Celestial Empire stories—for a complete checklist click HERE—I was somewhat confused at first, but thanks to an in-depth Chronology and other extras found at the end of the book, I was able to piece together a little bit of the bloody history that exists between the two empires including the First Mexic War at the end of the 19th century.

In Mr. Roberson’s new book, the Dragon Throne and the Mexica have taken their battle to the stars and are in the twelfth year of the Second Mexic War as they fight over the red planet Fire Star. I’m still not sure what was so special about the planet, but from this backdrop readers are introduced to narrators Captain Zhuan Jie and Bannerman Yao Guanzhong who, along with seven other lawbreakers enlisted in the Celestial Empire’s military, are given a choice between disciplinary action—which in most cases meant execution—or embarking on a special mission for the Dragon Throne. Obviously they opted for the second choice, which basically involved the nine reprobates piloting a captured Mexic vessel onto the secret—and recently discovered—Mexica military base Xolotl, where they were to detonate a fission bomb at the asteroid’s core. In other words, it was a suicide mission—and that’s only if they don’t kill each other first…

Offering criminals a second chance to redeem them selves, using an enemy’s own equipment such as vehicles & uniforms to infiltrate the opposition, and trying to blow up a space station are all fairly common plot devices, but there are several reasons why “The Dragon’s Nine Sons” never felt like a generic retread. First and foremost, it’s the setting. While I felt that I missed out on a lot of little details surrounding the history of the Mexica & Celestial Empires, just the fact that Mr. Roberson explores how such ancient cultures as the Aztecs and Imperial China would function in a futuristic time period was pure genius and really gave the book a distinctive flavor. Take for instance the Mexica space vessels which are all equipped with ‘hemoglobin-sensing trigger mechanisms’ and require blood rites—human sacrifices—in order to operate, or the Mexica’s combat suits which are stylized in the visages of ferocious beasts.

Secondly, I thought Chris Roberson did a pretty good job with the characters, specifically the nine criminals. Granted, none of the reprobates are really that original, but by learning of the reasons behind each of their transgressions—Zhuan defied a direct order because he’s a coward at heart; Fukuda murdered out of guilt, Nguyen out of anger, and Dea out of play-acting; Yao asked the wrong questions because his honor was greater than his duty to protocol; et cetera—it really humanized the characters, which in turn made the story that much more effective especially when their past mistakes shaped their future decisions and the outcome of the entire mission. Additionally, I also liked the situation that the author put the reprobates in—forcing a group of murderers, thieves, gamblers, smugglers & insubordinates to work together in a life or death situation—and the resulting interplay.

Lastly, as was the case with the other Chris Roberson novel that I read last year, “Set the Seas on Fire” (Reviewed
HERE), I was impressed with the author’s fluent prose and his ability to tell a story with a skillful blend of style, passion, and ingenuity.

In short, I came in thinking that Chris Roberson’s new book was going to be good and “The Dragon’s Nine Sons” doesn’t disappoint. Sure, I had some minor quibbles along the way like how the reprobates’ stories were told which were kind of goofy at times, the coincidences toward the end that really stretched my skepticism, how predictable some of the characters’ actions were, and the lack of background information regarding the Mexic/Celestial Empires and Fire Star. But like I said before, they were just minor issues and didn’t take away from how interesting, inventive and exciting Chris Roberson’s science fiction novel was. Basically, I was quite satisfied with my introduction to the Celestial Empire and plan on revisiting the universe as often as I can. Luckily, the next Celestial Empire novel—“Iron Jaw & Hummingbird” (Viking Press)—is coming out later this year, followed by “Three Unbroken” in 2009 (
Solaris Books) which is actually being SERIALIZED for free right now…

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