BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On a future Mars controlled by the Celestial Empire, young Gamine and Huang join together to bring down a corrupt government.
PROS: Interesting plot; complex characters.
CONS: Though they were well-drawn, the characters were not very compelling.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a good standalone entry point into this universe, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of other Celestial Empire stories.
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire stories. The setting is several centuries in the future of an alternate history where Imperial China and the Mexic Dominion fight to be a superpower in space. The latest story in this universe, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, is set on Mars, after it has been settled by Imperial China and terraforming has begun.
The story follows the two main characters of the book’s title. In the first act, we meet the young girl Gamine. She was rescued from the streets at an early age by a socialite who seemingly wants to educate Gamine in the civilized ways of society. Unfortunately, Gamine is subsequently thrown back out on the street on a whim and forced to grift her way towards food and shelter. She eventually runs a con (with fellow co-conspirator Temujin) in a traveling preacher show where she adopts the name Iron Jaw. In the second act, we are introduced to young Huang, the son of a merchant who begins a promising (though undesired by him) career in the Imperial army. Huang’s company is soon waylaid by a group of bandits who capture Huang and hold him hostage. Eventually, Huang sees the terrible deeds that city leader Governor Ouyang has done and joins up with the bandits, who subsequently nickname him Hummingbird. In the third act, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird meet up and combine forces to fight for the people; specifically they aim to bring down the corrupt Governor Ouyang.
Roberson continues his skillful world building with this story, showing us the culture of the future Imperial China. Like previous Celestial Empire stories, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird focuses its lens on the characters. Since this book is aimed at young adults/teens, it makes sense to concentrate of the young protagonists. Typically, such books move young characters through some rite of passage, and this book follows suit. More than anything, this is their story and the plot only serves as a vehicle in which to bring them to us.
With the focus on the characters, it’s important that those characters be both complex and compelling. With regards to complexity, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird are definitely not cardboard cutouts. Huang, for instance, evolves from compliant son, to eager soldier, to vengeful bandit – along the way wrestling with the morality of his actions. Gamine, for her part, is street smart and tough, yet credibly begins to believe her own religious charade. Each of them is forced to make adult decisions and contend with the consequences. While their decisions were not always moral, you at least understood them.
As for compelling, well, I can’t say I cared very much about what happened to these characters. While I understood the decisions they made and the circumstances that led them down that path, their actions were unquestionably immoral. (Maybe I’m getting old. There was a time when this didn’t really matter.) Huang, for example, is clearly a murderer. Not all of his actions were done in self-defense, which might have made his actions more tolerable. Gamine, on the other hand, seemed to play the con game much longer than she needed to, justifying her actions by not thinking of the marks as victims, but as customers for her “service”. Sure, these actions add to their complexity, but I couldn’t muster enough sympathy to care about the people that made them.
So the book scores on plot and character complexity, but suffers a bit with character sympathy. It was still a decent read, but the author set pretty high standards for himself with previous stories and thus I was hoping for more. That said, others may find Iron Jaw and Hummingbird a good standalone entry point into this universe.