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The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson

My grandma as I now remember her, had a phrase for every occasion. One of my enduring favourites is, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun”. She was a Victorian and so grew up immersed in the ethos of the Empire at large. It was a notorious fact that British Army Officers used to shoot every animal in sight, have it stuffed and mounted. Their homes were full to overflowing with these trophies. Yet, in the tradition of all fishermen from Captain Ahab on the Pequod onward, the things they were unable to shoot for want of a weapon to hand were always the most remarkable. Their stories were told and retold in drawing rooms throughout the land, each more sensational than the last.

Such was the boredom of peace that, for them, the coming of a real shooting war broke the monotony and allowed their homicidal impulses free rein. This transition from peace to war always produces emotional conflicts. For real warriors, it is the realisation of their purpose. The coming of war completes them. For people like Captain Zhuan Jie in The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson, it is the transition from contented merchant captain to an unsettled captain of a small man o’ war.

The question most consistently posed by the writers of military fiction is how people react when put to the test. For significant periods of time, a combatant can hide from direct confrontation with the enemy. When the time comes, do they rise to the challenge or will their nerve crack? There is a fascination with courage and the trappings of heroism. Rational people will always feel fear. No matter how many times you may face death, it will always be a result you would prefer to avoid. How well or badly you face this defines you as a warrior and a person.

In any work of length, you need a plot to drive you through the book. For the most part, it will be a mixture of contrivance and coincidence. The author needs a certain number of people to come together, certain things must happen so that we can arrive at the desired conclusion. We always hope for credibility. We are often disappointed. In this case, I find some of the coincidence contrived and unnecessary. Although it all takes place over a relatively short period of time and therefore the chances of different events interacting is quite high, I don’t think all the coincidences in this plot add anything to the strength of the story.

Then we come to the individual issues. Would a crew being sent on a suicide mission be so passive? The crew has every incentive to mutiny. They are out of the control of their immediate captors. They have access to weapons and, it would seem, only one officer standing in their way — I’m not convinced that the Captain would oppose an attempt to escape. Why is there not a whisper of conspiracy? Are we supposed to believe that this group would be so cowed when on their own, yet so magnificent when put to the ultimate test? In fact, trying to make a run for it in one of the enemy’s ships would make for an interesting read. Where would they go? Just what would the Generals tell the pursuers, if any? If challenged by another ship, what would the runways do? Now that’s a fun read. As it is, we are left with a flock of sheep penned up in the ship until the plot conveniently delivers them to their destination.

But, back on the plot we are given, we come to their enemies. There is no real detail on how the Mexica side live their lives. They are cyphers. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. States at war simply dehumanise and demonise the enemy. The plan is induce each group of warriors to think only the worst of their enemy so that both sides can kill without compunction. Since the story is told from the point of view of the “ordinary” warrior, I suppose their vagueness is understandable. Nevertheless, the lack of substance to the opposition means there is little sense of danger. This derives from the alternative history format. In a real world story of war with one nation pitted against another, we know the history and can fill in all the gaps to explain why there was mutual hatred. When the history is invented, it needs to be fleshed out to create a more convincing context for the action. Worse, for a supposedly militaristic cast culture on a war footing, their lack of internal security inside Xolotl is lamentably convenient for the “heroes”. Even when the alarm is triggered, the Mexica warriors are simply cannon fodder.

The notion that a whole ship, nay, even a complete space station might shut down if there was an insufficient supply of blood is distinctly disconcerting. Unless the crew are to be tapped for back-up supplies, I seriously wonder whether the technology could be allowed into space without some kind of override facility. There has to come a point on a small ship when you run out of captives (and just think of all the extra payload of food, clothing and medical supplies required to feed and keep them healthy). You start tapping the crew until their health is threatened. At this point, you just have to be able to make the ship work without having to kill the rest of the crew. This would seem most likely to happen in battle conditions when crew and captives might be killed. The ship cannot simply make a run for it back to the “secret” space station, so it has to “hide” until it is safe to return. In such circumstances, the surviving crew must be able to get by without blood donors or else lose the ship. All of which reminds me that the Celestial Empire has stealth technology but applies it to space suits when it would be better applied to small scout ships that could shadow the enemy back to their “secret” base.

It is a truism that, in war, hard decision must often be taken. Thus, for example, if you have broken the enemy’s code, this can often mean you have to allow the enemy’s plans to proceed as normal. To disrupt those plans alerts the enemy that the code has been broken. War is full of such hard decisions. The only difference may lie in the number of people who have to be sacrificed. And here we come to a major plot problem. From the outset, we are told that Bannerman Yao’s disciplinary issues arise from his interest in uncovering the truth about the Shachuan Station Massacre. Even the name is wrong. If the Mexic technology is so inflexibly dependent on fresh blood, no soldier would ever willingly kill even one of their enemies. They would take extraordinary care to ensure that all were taken prisoner with the least possible physical damage. This maximises the number of blood donors to keep the technology working. The idea that any armed group would indiscriminately kill settlers is not rational. I can accept that religious obligations may, in times of plenty, demand continuing sacrifices. But in times of war, when it may be difficult to obtain regular supplies of victims, I suspect that religion might have to yield to military practicality. Further, the need to take people alive for this purpose could be used by the Celestial Empire to inspire horror in their citizens who might even be persuaded to commit suicide rather than be taken. In this kind of conflict, the scorched earth strategy relies on denying your enemy live prisoners. After a while, the Mexic military will run out of prisoners and either have to start using its own citizens as blood donors or lose access to their weapons. The Celestial Empire might even have to instal suicide/homicide devices inside its colonists most at risk so that the High Command could remotely kill any citizen taken prisoner. That would give even the least effective citizen a motive for fighting ferociously against the enemy.

How good is this book? It is actually deeply frustrating. I can see how it could have been made into a brilliant book if only someone intelligent had taken the author in hand and shown him how to think through the implications of what he was writing. As it is, my page turning speed increased simply to see what the body count was at the end. I had no sense of empathy with any of the characters. Most of them, like their enemies, were nothing more than ciphers. It is a shame because, properly worked out, this clash of civilisations in an alternative universe would be quite interesting. Writers fight their wars inside their heads and, sometimes, it needs an outsider to tell the author, in as nice a way as possible, that more work is necessary. Such helpful critics always leave their guns at home when telling the author what they see. As it is, I am not tempted to try another instalment (I think it may be intended a trilogy — now there’s a surprise!)

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