Book Review 2008 #13: The Dragon’s Nine Sons

I love alternate history.
One of my favorite sub-genres within the lands of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I’ve alternate history from Lest Darkness Fall and Guns of the South, and through newer authors like Charles Stross, Naomi Novik and S.M. Stirling.
Another favored sub-genre of mine is space opera and adventure. From Planet of Adventure and Vance’s novels in the Gaean Reach, through Vorkosigan’s adventures, Alistair Reynolds, and others.
Chris Roberson (whose Paragaea was one of my favorite reads last year) has married these two genres in a novel set in his Celestial Empire alternate history, The Dragons Nine Sons. (TDNS). I also, thanks to his kind graces, had an opportunity to first read a prequel story, “The Line of Dichotomy”

It’s the dirty dozen in space…in an alternate history space war between the Chinese and the Aztecs.
That’s the flippant way to describe the novel.
Set in an Alternate History where the 21st century is a conflict between a world-spanning Chinese Empire and their only significant rival, the Mexica (Aztecs), TDNS is a story of several disgraced Chinese soldiers and officers, brought together for a one-way suicide mission on a stolen Mexica ship. The conflict between these two powers has heated up around Mars, and the Chinese have discovered that the Mexica have a secret asteroid base. Take out that base, and the Mexica’s space efforts would be severely crippled. However, such a mission is not likely to result in any survivors.
Thus, we meet Captain Zhuan Jie and Bannerman Yao, the two disgraced head officers picked for the mission. While the former’s reason for being included is made clearly early, we only later learn the full depth of Yao’s story (and this is gone in more detail in the story I read along with it). We also meet the rest of the crew, and at various points during the trip, get the classic device of them telling their tale of how they came to be on the mission.
After training and preparation and the long trip to the asteroid, the real mission begins. A twist, shamefully spoiled on the back blurb, changes the mission parameters dramatically, and the crew has an additional objective to simply destroying the asteroid base…
The weakest part of the novel, in my opinion, is the execution of the mission itself. I felt that the Mexica were a bit too faceless, as personalities and antagonists. Oh, we get very lovely detail on the surface about their strange technology and culture and how it compares to the Chinese. Particularly gruesome was the use of blood sacrifice as a sensor to activating controls on the ship (and presumably elsewhere). And the city within the asteroid base is well detailed.
However, the Mexica don’t work as individual opponents. While the Line of Dichotomy does portray one of the Jaguar knights as an individual, in TDNS, they are relatively faceless enemies, adversaries to be killed and nothing more. I was a bit disappointed in this. My favorite WWII action movie, Where Eagles Dare, takes great pains to make the Nazis in the Castle individuals as well as adversaries. I didn’t get that same sense in this book, and I think it could have made the latter portion of book as strong as the first parts.
I also got the feeling that the mission as described was too much for the Dragon’s Nine Sons, especially given the secondary mission that the crew undertakes and just how fraught with peril the asteroid is. Roberson pulls his punches a little, I think, in making an impossible mission within the realm of possibility.
The stronger, earlier portions of the novel give us a sense of the strange alternate nature of this world. I ate up the rich details of life in a Chinese dominated Mars and space navy. Details large and small fill and develop very nicely. And Roberson feels no need to actually discuss the point of divergence, a weakness many novels in the genre have. The world is simply presented as it is for us to enjoy. And I did.
In addition, Roberson does a great job showing the natures of our protagonists, both in their personalities and in their backstories. The gambler/thief, the prankster, the murderers (although we come to understand why they killed), the pacifist…yes, they are clearly archetypes that you have seen before, but they are well drawn, with a good amount of tension between such very different characters. And these character traits pay off throughout the novel. Roberson understands Chekhov’s Law very well.
Overall, I am quite happy with the read and enjoyed it. There are a number of other stories set in the Celestial Empire (one or two of which I have read already). Given my taste for Alternate History, I intend to seek the others out and read them, too.
I do challenge Chris, though, to write a story set in this universe strictly from the point of view of the Mexica. Perhaps getting fully in the mind of the sacrifice-loving Mexica will make them rise from the level of mooks to full fledged adversaries worthy of being the antagonists of the mighty Celestial Empire.
If, like me, you like both the sub-genres of Alternate History and Space Opera/Adventure, then The Dragons Nine Sons is most definitely worth sampling.