Dream of the Dragon Pool by Albert A. Dalia. Review by Andrea Johnson
At first blush, Dream of the Dragon Pool seems a rather simple narrative following the poet Li Bo on his journey into exile after being expelled by the royal court. Stopping at an ancient dream temple, Li falls into a dangerous quest that he must complete, or face the anger of the spirits.
Li Bo was a real person, one of the most famous poets in Chinese literature. Of central Asian descent, Li Bo was often seen as an outsider. After an attempted coup, he was sent into exile to the southern reaches of the empire. Before reaching Burma, he was invited to return to the capital. Dream of the Dragon Pool is what may have happened during his travels south. Although many of the people and places in the novel have historical context, Dalia does a beautiful job of world building; where a historical context would be helpful, it isn't needed to enjoy this wonderful tale.
Li is told at the dream temple that he must bring the Dragon Pool Sword to Mount Wu, to be protected by the Spirit who resides there. To accomplish this, Li and his swordsman companion Ah Wu travel down the Yangzte River and through the three gorges (also a real place, The Three Gorges is to this day a dangerous area of the Yangzte River). But they aren't the only ones who know the Dragon Pool Sword is in transit. The sword is an object of powerócan it be protected by a mere mortal? While enroute to Mount Wu, Li and Ah Wu are joined by a blonde ghost named Chen, a "travelling entertainer" named Ma Ssu-Ming and his ghost hunting pet monkey, and shamaness looking to escape the royal court. On their tail is a dangerous and power hungry Blood Dragon, and an imperial assassin, both willing and sometimes happy to kill to get what they want. It becomes a race to get the sword, and to survive.
The characterization was my favorite aspect of Dream of the Dragon Pool. I wonder if Dalia modeled their characteristics on people he knew, they are described and created in such loving detail. Ma Ssu-Ming's pet monkey, Lao Huang, usually drunk, is hilarious, and useful as a ghost hunter. Ah Wu is along for the ride out of respect for his friend Li Bo, and as a disciplined soldier can barely stand to watch his companions wile the entire day away reading poetry and drinking. Their exchanges are quite humorous and casual in a way I'm not used to seeing in hero fantasy stories. The Blood Dragon is a fascinating foe, appearing as the person you most hate. Once killed by a Blood Dragon, the victim's ghost becomes his slave. Even after finishing the book, I can see Li and Ma Ssu-Ming laughing on the boat, and Ah Wu looking suspiciously at Chen, and the Blood Dragon swimming behind the boat, biding his time. For having numerous attempts made on his life, and to the frustrations of his traveling companions, Li Bo is incredibly relaxed through the whole ordeal. He trusts his destiny to the spirits, and he knows although this adventure may end in his death, it's far preferable to a slow boring death in exile.
For a historical and mythical fantastical story, all the characters (even the spirits) talk and act in a smart and rather modern fashion. It's refreshing to read a book with historical reference and have characters joke, drink, and talk like sailors. You'll find no melodramatic soliloquy-ing in this fantastical story, these characters are more interested in having fun, drinking, flirting, and writing poetry to act in the standard, western "Tolkien" dramatic epic fantasy fashion. Written in the style of Chinese heroic fantasy, there is plenty of action as well, much of it involving kung fu and sword fights.
A thought that kept crossing my mind as I read this was the tempo. Certain scenes meander, flowing like a lazy river, other times moving at an unexpectedly quicker pace. Dalia artfully parallels the tempo of the story to the river on which they are traveling. As the currents move faster and the rapids become more dangerous, so does everything else. It is subtly done, and not something I've ever run into before. A mild negative on the book was sentence structure and editing. There are chunks of sentences that just don't flow, areas where words are stumbling over themselves. Bad editing? Lost in translation? I don't know, though it wasn't hard to get past the choppiness to enjoy the story being told.
If you enjoy any type of hero myth and hero fantasy, give Dream of the Dragon Pool a shot. It is a refreshing change from western style fantastical stories, and gives a relaxing and satisfying aftertaste. There is a novel grace and layered subtly to Dalia's writing style. I look forward to reading more from him.
Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.