White Tiger by Kylie Chan sounded like a great departure from the usual urban fantasy fare. Set in Hong Kong, White Tiger incorporates Chinese mythology rather than the more trodden ground of European mythology. The plot sounded like fun, too. It centers on Emma Donahoe, an Australian woman who becomes a live-in nanny in the employ of John Chen, a rich Chinese widower with a little daughter. This scenario gave off a vibe of Gothic romance, a genre that is one of my guilty pleasures. But I was disappointed in White Tiger, despite really wanting to like it, and stopped reading at a little over 100 pages.
A large part of the problem is Chan’s characterization of Emma. Most of the time, she’s bland. She simply doesn’t seem fleshed out beyond her adoration of Mr. Chen’s daughter Simone, and later her crush on Mr. Chen. Then, reading a couple of scenes where Chan tries to add to Emma’s character, I ended up feeling annoyed.
In the first of these scenes, Emma meets the boyfriend of Mr. Chen’s bodyguard, Leo, who is gay. Emma and the boyfriend make utterly mundane small talk for a few minutes, and then somehow this is so hilarious to Emma that she retreats to her room afterward to collapse in hysterical laughter. I can’t tell why she’s laughing — my best guess is that it’s either because she’s amused that Leo brought someone home or because Leo seemed uncomfortable during the conversation. It isn’t quite clear. The effect, though, is of making Emma seem immature, like a kid who thinks it’s funny that grown-ups have love lives.
In the other scene, Emma goes with her Chinese-Australian friend April to a local temple. Emma points out the swastikas in the décor and that they have a negative connotation, and April says that it’s a good-luck symbol in China. So far, so good — but then April starts talking about Hitler as though he were an almost heroic figure, giving Emma an opening to tell her what he really did. This scene sat badly with me, and I turned it over in my head several times trying to figure out why. I was irked by Emma’s initial remark about the symbol when it’s well-known that it has a different meaning in some Eastern religions, and I was troubled by April’s subsequent defense of Hitler even though it’s because she just didn’t know the history. Finally it dawned on me that the person I was really annoyed with was the author, for writing this conversation in the first place — making April look ignorant so Emma could appear enlightened by comparison. As far as I can tell, it isn’t even relevant to the plot.
Speaking of the plot, it moves at a glacial pace. Very little happens in the portion I read, other than conversations and traveling. The martial arts mentioned in the cover blurb have barely appeared. There are some mysterious bad guys, but they don’t seem like much of a threat. Mostly, what has happened so far is that Emma has conversations with people in the Chen household that lead her to believe something paranormal is going on; she researches it and comes to a conclusion; and then rejects the conclusion. Then this process repeats, with her reaching the same conclusion and again deciding it can’t be true. (At the point where I stopped, the truth had finally been confirmed, though it had been obvious to the reader much earlier.)
The romance between Emma and Mr. Chen is also lacking. There simply isn’t any chemistry to it. We get mentions of Emma mooning over Chen, and we overhear Chen waxing rhapsodic about Emma, but the feeling doesn’t come through the page. Then, in a scene that does attempt to build some sexual tension between the two, here is what they are talking about: feeding mice to snakes. The snakes are somewhat relevant because Chen has a supernatural affinity for reptiles, but it’s a mystery to me why the conversation turned to that aspect of snakes right when the two are supposed to be getting hot and bothered by each other’s nearness. It’s just tone-deaf.
Kylie Chan had a good idea with White Tiger, and the mentions of Hong Kong landmarks and Chinese deities did inspire me to look them up online and learn more about them. But the execution of these ideas was unsuccessful; there were too many scenes that were repetitive, that could have been left out entirely, or that undermined the mood they were attempting to create. I was unable to sustain interest in the book.