Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson

(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 53, July 2009)

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The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson
Solaris, 2008, 416pp.

It is 2052 in an alternate universe where Imperial China battles the Mexic Dominion for control of the fourth planet from the sun, Fire Star. Nine trouble-making soldiers are given a reprieve from execution if they undertake a suicide mission: piloting a captured Mexic spaceship to the asteroid stronghold of the enemy to destroy it from within. When they arrive at the base, they discover dozens of Chinese prisoners destined to be used as human sacrifices, and their suicide mission becomes a desperate rescue attempt.

The Dragon’s Nine Sons is a novel set in Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire universe, a fascinating alternate history where fifteenth-century China, instead of closing itself off from the world, continued its program of exploration and wound up becoming the major world power. Roberson has about a dozen or so short stories set in the universe; The Dragon’s Nine Sons is the second novel, with others forthcoming.

The leaders of the assault expedition are Captain Zhuan Jie and Bannerman Yao Guanzhong. Zhuan is a reluctant captain. He joined the Imperial transport forces to escape the family business of training wild animals for the Emperor’s enjoyment. When war with the Mexica broke out, Zhuan was pressed into military service where he eventually made captain. He was arrested and sentenced to execution because his own cowardice made him disobey a direct order and command his ship away from a battle.

The other main character, Bannerman Yao, is Zhuan’s opposite. Career military from a military family on both sides, he was a dutiful and honorable officer. Yet when his unit chances upon a Mexic attack of a civilian station on Fire Star, his superiors order him not to engage the enemy. This leads to an enormous amount of civilian casualties and unanswered questions for Yao. The Bannerman persists in looking for answers in spite of orders from his superiors to let the matter drop. When he finally finds out what happened he is arrested as well.

Zhuan and Yao are put in charge of the captured Mexic ship, renamed the Dragon, and a team of seven misfits: Ang the pilot, gambler, and thief; Nguyen, the gentle mountain of a man with a murderous temper; Cai, the awkward prankster; Paik, the self-centered loafer; Dea, the killer marksman who thinks he’s a wild-west gunslinger; Fukuda, the nervous explosive expert; and Syuxtun, communications officer and devout Muslim. Zhuan and Yao must get this motley bunch to work together if any of them are to have a chance of returning from their mission.

Save for the incredibly inventive universe, The Dragon’s Nine Sons does not break much new ground. Roberson could have easily titled the novel, “The Dirty Three-Quarters Dozen.” So much could have been done with the voice of the narrative, say, by drawing from the rich tradition of Chinese literature or more recent wuxia fiction. In spite of the exotic setting, the novel reads like American action-adventure science fiction.

For me to say this is unfair, I know. A reviewer must review the book an author actually wrote, not the one the reviewer wishes he had written. Roberson has an excellent prose style, delightfully transparent to the story he tells. The adventure is engaging. I would not say I was surprised by anything that happened in the story, but I consider it a page-turner. And I do want to read more of Roberson’s Celestial Empire stories.

Lovers of military SF and a good action-adventure story will definitely want to check out The Dragon’s Nine Sons.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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