Reviewed By Jeff Cook
The Orient has always been a place of mystery for Westerners, but never more so than in this latest collection of novellas by prolific author and expert on all things Eastern, Dean Barrett. Open Dragon Slayer and you'll find yourself transported across the chasm of space and time: to 1967, where a gunship piloted by American G.I.s in Vietnam is transported to 19th Century China and a battle against pirates (not nearly as one-sided as you might think); seeking shelter on a particularly haunted and stormy night in a storage house for slaves; or outside a Chinese restaurant in a small town where prejudice comes at a steep price.
Each of the stories Barrett tells is steeped in Chinese mythology and traditions, gleaned from the authors many years as soldier, traveler, and teacher. That the research is unobtrusively interwoven into the narrative and actually propels the plot forward, you can credit to Barrett's skill as a writer - the man writes prose as elegant as poetry and knows his way around a plot. In fact, I would say that Barrett's skill as a writer is equal to and more honed than several best-selling authors that I have read.
The three novellas included here, Dragon Slayer, Bones of the Chinamen, and Golden Dragon, are all worthwhile for readers craving supernaturally-tinged fair. Of the three, only Golden Dragon can claim to be out-and-out-horror, a tale worthy of becoming a franchise should any movie studio decide to take the chance. In it, a family of restaurant owners falls victim to the bigotry of small-town high-school kids (as well as that ol' demon alcohol), who are then hunted down one by one by an exotic woman possessed by the spirit of a Chinese god.
Dragon Slayer is a back-to-the-past blast of a science fiction story that pits modern warfare technology against 19th century cunning. The GIs who find themselves blown wildly off course are by turns hilarious, complicated, and deadly. For my money, it's as solid as a story can get.
And Bones of the Chinamen is all eerie character work, as a man is pushed to the brink of madness and despair by the actions of the slave-shipper he works for. It's captivating stuff that keeps you turning the pages even as you dread the ending that seems all too pre-ordained.
Individually, each of these novellas is a stunning read. Together, they're a treatise on the author's limitless imagination, unbridled passion for his subject matter, and unerring instincts as a writer. I had never come across Barrett before I picked up Dragon Slayer and invited him in, but I can whole-heartedly say that I'm looking forward to his next visit.
That prolific author Dean Barrett has
been at it again, this time publishing a weighty three hundred and forty-eight
page three novella book “Dragon Slayer” containing Dragon Slayer, Bones of the
Chinamen and Golden Dragon (ISBN 0-9788888-0-4, Village East Books Florida).
The three novellas are involved with Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese superstition. Now add some fairly gory historical details and some American soldiers and some non-stop action and you are starting to see the way the novellas will unfold. The fact that Dean Barrett was a Chinese linguist with the American Army Security Agency and has lived in Asia for 25 years lends credibility to the writing.
There can be no doubting his knowledge of US firepower in Dragon Slayer, and his previous research into Hong Kong in 1857 (a musical called Fragrant Harbour) is evident in the Bones of the Chinamen, and one presumes the small town USA background is one in which Barrett probably grew up. Dragon Slayer, the first novella in the trilogy deals with an American helicopter crew from the 82nd Assault Helicopter Company on duty in Vietnam. Like so many of their compatriots they were a fun-loving bunch, ready to break as many rules as the US Army could give them. A target painted under the fuselage of the helicopter read “VC Target Range – Happy Shooting”. These were modern day swashbuckling buccaneers. The story covers the crew and their one US prisoner, as they get shot down, but crash landing not in Vietnam in 1968, but somehow through a ‘black hole’ or similar time warp, crash landing in China in 1857.
I must admit I was not quite ready for the Sci-Fi aspect, but the narrative and extreme action kept me reading. Dean Barrett has the ability to bring the reader into the plot. The ending was not how I had guessed, so expect something different. A great read on its own. The second novella is called the Bones of the Chinamen and is set in the 1800’s and totally in a barracoon, which was a holding pen for Chinese slaves before they were shipped off to be used to recover guano from the Peruvian Chinchas, though told at the time that they were going to California for the gold rush. Apparently this story was originally a stage play, which also explains why the entire novella has the one setting. This one is no Sci-Fi but a horror story highlighting the inhumane treatment meted out to the slaves, and also the vagaries of life for even the non-slaves. Again this story has a brilliant psychological ending.
The final in the trilogy, Golden Dragon is a fine example of a paranormal thriller, but with again enough blood spilt to satisfy even the goriest of tastes. And enough shock and horror. This one I could see as a movie. It was also another story that I did not guess the ending anywhere near correct. At B. 450 RRP and available at Asia Books & Bookazine outlets, Amazon.com, etc., this three in one is an excellent read, as well as excellent value, especially for those who like something just that little bit different.
Any new book by Dean Barrett is bound to be interesting and well-written, so we took advantage of the fact that since Dragon Slayer (2007, ISBN 978-0-9788888-0-0), his latest, is broken up into three novellas, it would be the perfect read for a grueling 16 hour plane ride home. If you’re like us, you go back and forth between sleeping and staying awake, which makes it difficult to finish an entire book in one read, while living life large at 30,000 feet. Barrett’s novellas were perfect for the trip, and they encompass themes familiar to his longtime readers: the Vietnam era, Chinese culture, and the supernatural.
The first of the novellas, “Dragon Slayer,” is set during the Vietnam War in 1968. American enlisted men are in a helicopter gunship firing back at Vietcong below when their chopper is violently sucked into a mysterious vortex. When they finally emerge they soon realize they have landed in southern China in 1857. They then find themselves fighting yet another war, aiding villagers and Taiping women warriors fighting to the death with the Manchus and their merciless allies, both Chinese regulars and foreign pirates. Barrett manages to capture the anti-establishment, adventurous attitude of the young Americans who seem not too fazed about where or when they are so long as they think the Army can find a way to get their paychecks to them. Some of the more fascinating elements concern the mechanics of waging a war 1850's-style, and Barrett’s clearly done his homework in explaining the deployment of the materiél of the era.
The second offering, “Bones of the Chinamen,” is set in southern China in 1862 inside a barracoon, a stifling, prison-like warehouse where Chinese were kept before being shipped out to a life of slavery and death on Peru’s Chincha Islands, where coolies eked out a fatal and short existence mining ammonia-charged bird guano. Narrated in the first person by a young, guilt-ridden Chinese barracoon employee, the novella is reminiscent, in terms of introspective horror, of some of the best writing of Edgar Allen Poe.
Finally, in “Golden Dragon” a group of violent and prejudiced high school students in a remote town in Maine slaughter the Chinese owner and employees of a Chinese restaurant. And they seem about to get away with it until a beautiful Chinese woman appears. This is more a traditional ghost story but with plenty of conflict and gore, as well as unexpected twists and turns, presenting once again evidence of this talented author’s intimate knowledge of things Chinese and of his ability to tell a good story. “Revenge is a soup best eaten cold,” goes the old adage, and Barrett’s sense of the dramatic here combines with supernatural elements that bring to mind the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in a story that continually leaves the reader in anxious anticipation that justice take its course. As the Thais say, “som nam na!” (serves you right!).
A Chinese linguist from the States who has travelled and lived in Asia for a quarter-century, Dean Barrett's novels are set in Thailand and China, his knowledge of the Celestial Kingdom especially extensive.
What most foreigners "know" about pre-Communist China is disconnected: Marco Polo's visit, the Great Wall, valuable Ming pottery, Shaolin Temple kung fu, Dr Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, bound feet, Peking duck, Chinese movies, dragon dancers, junks.
To his credit, Barrett's works of China-set fiction are genuinely informative. And, of course, enjoyable. I'm surprised that none has been adapted to the screen. He is adept at building suspense and his use of the supernatural brings to mind Stephen King.
Dragon Slayer, the author's 10th book, is comprised of three novellas. The first has the same title as the whole book. The second is "Bones of the Chinamen". The third is "Golden Dragon." Each is self-contained, the plots unrelated. All are a mite spooky.
The "Dragon Slayer" story opens in 1968 during the Vietnam War. The focus is on the crew of a US Army Bell UH-IC helicopter loaded for bear, sprouting machineguns and rockets. Its pilot is nicknamed Hard Bones, admired for his professional ability and determination to keep them alive.
Odd man out is Greenwood, a Special Forces hunter-killer who gets off on killing. One too many was his superior officer who tried to stop him. In manacles, he is being taken to his court-martial. But the chopper gets blown far off course by a mysterious wind.
It crashlands in China a century earlier. Their prisoner escapes to join pirates. The others join the Taipings in their rebellion against the Emperor. Some are killed. The survivors live out their lives in the past.
"Bones of the Chinamen" is set in 19th century southern China. As in Africa, Chinese are being kidnapped (by fellow Chinese) and sold into slavery. The coolies are kept in a barracoon, a holding pen, before being transported in abysmal conditions in ships to one or another destination where they'll be worked to death.
The villain of the piece is the Portuguese boss of the hell-hole, whipping recalcitrant coolies, raping the women. Musician Li Tong is the narrator. A storm uncovers the corpses thrown into shallow graves nearby, their bones banging the doors and blown inside by the wind. In time, Armindo DaCruz has his throat cut.
"Golden Dragon" is set in a small coastal town in Maine, Stephen King country. Several high school rednecks kill a family of Chinese operating a restaurant there. They frame a retard, too good-natured to have done it. Released on bail, he is murdered too.
A Chinese-American girl shows up. Linda Chan has no reflection in mirrors, changes shape and uses her amulet of the God of Hell to achieve justice the police are unable to. In "Dragon Slayer," Dean Barrett continues to satisfy his readers.
Curled up with A Good Book by Lillian Brummet
Dragon Slayer is a collection of three novellas, each imbued with a Chinese aspect - understandable since author Dean Barrett has lived in Asia for over 25 years. He first arrived in Asia as a linguist during the Vietnam War and returned years later with a master's degree in Asian Studies. Barrett’s plays have been performed in nine countries, and the Hong Kong Standard published his satirical column for five years. Dean has published at least nine novels that I am aware of – five of these have settings in Asia.
The three novellas in Dragon Slayer relate well together even though they span time and reality. Each story focuses on the Chinese culture and the supernatural world. "Bones of the Chinamen" is about the Chinese slave trade and how one young man feels hopelessly trapped by his situation. Next, readers are transported through time in the thriller "Dragon Slayer" when an American military helicopter and its crew meet a dragon that takes them back centuries in time. The author brings us back to the modern era with "Golden Dragon," where violent youth attack a peaceful Chinese family and are haunted by their crime.
Each of these three novellas is very well written, full of action and intrigue, holding interest through to the last page.
Bookwired Review by Tag Craig
From the steamy jungles to the beaches of Maine to the flatlands of China you become enthralled in life or death, good and evil and then you feel it, you are in a spell, you are in the book...Dean Barrett shows you the real world of the slave trade, he takes you back to where dragons would have been out of place and then among horrible murders, he sets the tone and asks what is good or evil. Dragon Slayer...is non-stop action with a passion and detailed enough for adults. This book seethes with mystery, suspense and fear. A must read for anyone succumbing to a nightmare, or even to what a dream could become.