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The Dragon's Nine Sons: A Novel of the Celestial Empire by Chris Roberson
Review by John Berlyne
Solaris Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781844165247
Date: 04 February 2008 List Price £10.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The new novel from the supremely talented Chris Roberson, a young writer whose work I admire very much indeed -- see my reviews of Paragea and Set the Seas on Fire. This new novel, The Dragon's Nine Son's, "marks the start of the epic Celestial Empire sequence, one of the most original and exciting series in modern science fiction." Check out the Solaris web site for more on this and do take a look at Roberson's excellent and informative web site.

"A disgraced naval captain and a commando who knows secrets he should never have learned are picked to lead a suicide mission, piloting a salvaged Mexica spacecraft to Xolotl, the asteroid stronghold of their enemies, armed with enough explosives to reduce the Mexica base to dust. But when they arrive to find dozens of Chinese prisoners destined to be used as human sacrifices, their suicide mission suddenly becomes a rescue operation."

I've reviewed a couple of Chris Roberson novels for SFRevu and found that I enjoyed both very much indeed. Roberson, who is prolific and highly visible both as the publisher and proprietor (along with his wife, Alison Baker) of Monkeybrain Books and as a writer of considerable creative ingenuity, is popping up all over the place. British publisher Solaris, now well-established in the marketplace with their carefully hand-picked selections of real quality genre fiction, offer up their second Roberson novel in the space of only six months.

In sharp contrast to Set The Seas On Fire, which is a fantasy summed up (rather perfectly) as "Horatio Hornblower meets H.P. Lovecraft", Roberson's newest release is a space opera. Fans of his work will know the setting, a tailor-made, wide-screen background in which the author has already set a number of his tales. Roberson has created a story universe termed The Celestial Empire in which two great and ancient human civilisations are the dominant forces -- one descended from the Chinese, one from the Aztecs. This new novel The Dragon's Nine Sons is the first such story I have read set in this alternative future time line, and from it I gather that both factions would appear to be on a par with regards to their technology.

Roberson has described The Dragon's Nine Sons as "The Dirty Dozen in space" and that is a fair summation (numbers aside!), given the plot is in part an homage to that Hollywood classic. Nine military misfits and miscreants are brought together by their superiors and given orders to perform a highly secret, highly dangerous mission from which they are unlikely to return. All are ignominious in some way -- cowards, upstarts, petty thieves, conscientious objectors, etc. -- or so it would seem at first. As the story unfolds, Roberson reveals to the reader some of each character's back story and in doing so, of course, shows us that there is something redeemable in each.

Nevertheless, in spite of a nobler subtext at work, these guys are losers in the eyes of the establishment and are therefore expendable. Two of them are our leading protagonists -- one a naval captain disgraced for disobeying an order that would have resulted in not only his own death but that of his crew, and the second a commando sidelined and subsequently criminalised for asking too many questions. These two must shepherd their motley crew aboard a commandeered vessel, traverse hostile space, land on a huge, hollowed-out asteroid that doubles as a major Mexica operational base, and plant a fusion bomb in its belly. Easy! Well, actually, not easy at all. Instead, the only guarantee here is certain death. These guys are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

This plot then provides the potential for plenty of promising action, but rather disappointingly, I found The Dragon's Nine Sons much less easy on the eye than the previous Roberson novels I've covered. The main reason for this lies in how this novel is structured. We learn of the mission very early on, but the bulk of the page count is taken up by the journey -- two thirds of the novel has passed by the time the team arrive on the asteroid and get on with the business of blowing it up. The net result is an elongated middle section of the story, followed by a frazzled and frenetic resolution that is completed in a rush -- an imbalance not at all satisfying for the reader. Roberson also sets himself the task of having to relate to us the back story of each of his nine "sons"; but this is not a long novel, and with so many on the team, these characters can only really be sketched for us, making them by definition stereotypical line drawings of people defined only by single events. Furthermore, the back stories are related often as exposition rather than narrative, a dangerous technique to employ at the best of times, and one here that serves to slow the pace exactly at the time when it should be pushing onward.

The net result of these flaws is a novel that comes across as a little dry -- for my palate at least -- given both its premise and its promise. Perhaps the austere formality of the chinoiserie limits any room put aside for light relief. I'm not suggesting a gag a minute would be appropriate here, but The Dragon's Nine Sons suffers in lacking at least some of the sense of fun present in Paragea.

One striking plus point, however, is the antagonist element -- the Mexica. Roberson draws on the historical horrors of Aztec blood sacrifice, extrapolating their philosophies and beliefs to offer us a truly fearsome race of space-faring warriors, their campaigns fuelled, quite literally, by the blood of their enemies. As baddies go, these guys are great, and there is plenty of scope for further horrors to come. In spite of the dryness and dragging pace of The Dragon's Nine Sons, I remain a huge fan of Roberson's works and look forward to further adventures in this setting. Solaris are currently publishing the next novel of The Celestial Empire, Three Unbroken, online at their web site, in an ingenious segmented "I-Ching" form.

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