07:05am July 10th, 2009
Review: Dream of the Dragon Pool
Dream of the Dragon Pool is a wuxia novel by American China scholar Albert A. Dalia and it has all the hallmarks of great wuxia. Tragedy, action and humor combine as a cast of non-to predictable characters journey down the Yangtze river. Li Bo, an exiled poet is on a personal quest to find his lost inspiration that becomes a mission to save the ruling dynasty and maintain the spiritual balance of the great river. The cast includes swordsmen, ghosts, drunken ship captains, drunken monkeys, shamans, spirits and gods. Dalia has lots of wonderful little details that add up to a feeling of viewing a great Shaw film or reading a Louis Cah novel. If you have been missing Barry Hughart and are tired of waiting for the rest of the West to realize how great wuxia is and get with the translating or are looking for something fresh in the fantasy genre, check out Dream of the Dragon Pool.
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Enter the 36th Chamber
date posted: Jan 08, 2008 5:07 PM
Book Review: Albert A. Dalia’s Dream of the Dragon Pool-A Daoist Quest
So I’ve never really written a book review, and I’m not sure this is so much going to turn out as a review. I’m no critic, and I’m just going to gush over how much I liked this book with no real quibbles about writing or anything like that. So… here goes:
I’ve previously written about my interest in the genre of Chinese literature and cinema called “wuxia” or “Martial chivalry” and how I see correlations between it and Star Wars. Specifically when it comes to Jedi, Sith and the Force. Plus, you know, the sword fighting. You can find those previous blogs here: Intergalactic Swordplay and here: Intergalactic Swordplay Episode II
There’s some available wuxia literature in English translation from Chinese, but most of it costs a great deal of money because it’s published by Oxford University Press and the like. It’s also kinda hard to find unless you’re prepared to pay 25+ dollars and shipping from Amazon. You’re not likely to find it just on the shelves at your local B&N or Borders. There are resources online for fan translations of many novels by the most popular wuxia authors, links to those are in the previously mentioned blogs on the topic.
Dream of the Dragon Pool is set during the Tang dynasty and is loosely based on some historical facts. Our hero is Li Bo, the most famous and revered poet in Chinese history, who has been exiled by the Emperor to distant Yunnan province for his remaining days. He is accompanied by Wang Ah Wu, a “xia” or swordsman. Dalia prefers to use the term “wandering blade.” We pick of their story as Li Bo is essentially dragging Ah Wu along with him on what may prove to be a foolish and fruitless quest… to find the Dream Temple so that Li Bo can have a dream reveal how to bring back his gift for poetry and return triumphantly to the Imperial Court.
They encounter ghosts and swordsman along the way. Their path becoming increasingly intertwined with the Emperor’s favorite Daoist(Taoist) shamaness, who has fled the Court for fear of her life, and a swordsman named Ma Ssu-ming who is seeking the shamaness along with his drunken monkey friend and “master” Lao Huang. Li and Ah Wu are also pursued by a Blood Dragon, an immature dragon that feeds upon human blood, and its ghostly minions after coming into possession of the legendary Dragon Pool Sword by way of mystical happenings.
I’m not going to go into great detail about the story, and what I liked. I don’t want to hurt the experience for anyone… so what I have put here will have to do. What I do want to do is draw the attention of my fellow Star Wars fans to this novel and hopefully to wuxia fiction in general. The martial prowess and chi abilities of our wandering blade xia characters will remind anyone with the abilities of our favorite Jedi and Sith. Within the first chapter of Dream of the Dragon Pool we are treated to Wang Ah Wu using his chi to expand his awareness beyond what his eyes and ears perceive. Along the way we are treated to swords fights and extraordinary abilities that conjure up memories of some of the best duels and interesting powers in Star Wars. No doubt wuxia was a huge influence on Star Wars at its inception, and especially with the prequel trilogy.
Here we have a unique opportunity to read some of this type of fiction, and luckily it’s not a translation. Albert A. Dalia is not only a wuxia fan, but a scholar of medieval Chinese history and culture. His love for Chinese life, history, myth and religion shines through in this novel. As does his love for heroic fiction in general. His is the first, that I know of, serious treatment of wuxia in English, for English speakers. He’s already at work on his next foray into the genre. So, I think we have alot to look forward to here so long as his work sees sales. No better way to convince the publishing industry that there’s a market than buying the product. So please, give this a chance. I can guarantee you’ll like it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars
If you like Jedi you’ll like wuxia, January 8, 2008
By E. Khuluq (Philadelphia, PA)
This is my wife’s account, my name is Dawud.
I bought this book because I’m interested in wuxia literature after having been into wuxia films and comics for years. I’d never read a wuxia novel all the way through before. Most of those I knew about don’t have English translations and are subject to gradual fan translations online. So when I heard of Mr Dalia’s work I was eagerly anticipating it. I was not in the least disappointed.
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, and I’ve been reading Star Wars novels for the last 14 years and in recent years I’ve been really noting the similarities between Star Wars and wuxia ever since I became interested in wuxia. So Star Wars novels were a good introduction for me into this genre I’d say, and reading Dream of the Dragon Pool was like putting on familiar clothing with a different design and maybe a bit more vintage.
Dream of the Dragon Pool really drives home for me how wuxia Star Wars is, especially when it comes to the use of chi in the martial arts. The first time Wang Ah Wu uses his chi to boost his awareness of his surroundings I was reminded of the way Jedi are written to use the Force for the same thing. This book is a must read for Star Wars fans. I also highly recommend it to anyone interested in wuxia fiction in general… and people who have an interest in Chinese culture and martial arts.
The New Year starts with FIVE STARS; newest Amazon.com Review
5.0 out of 5 stars
a dream of ancient china, January 1, 2008
By Erik C. Pihl “Readerman” (Sacramento, Ca.) -
To treat a set of ideas or beliefs as more that just a set of ideas or beliefs is difficult. This is especially so when the beliefs in question are not part of one’s own cultural heritage. There is both considerable skill in the writing and considerable knowledge used as background necessary to pull something like this off. Albert Dalia succeeds on both counts. The story, although strange from a Westerner’s point of view, moves through its changes smoothly, interestedly, and, perhaps more to the point, believably. Granted, this tale involves the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but, that done, it is a good story well told, and well worth the read.
A RAVE National Review for Dream of the Dragon Pool
Wicked and nefarious enemies and wondrous adventure flow from this exotic and utterly enthralling tale. November 4, 2007
Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA)
Written by Albert A. Dalia, a scholar of medieval Chinese history and culture for four decades, Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest is an amazing novel based on the historical death-sentence exile of China’s beloved poet-adventurer Li Bo (also Li Bai, 701-762 A.D.). A fanciful tale of myth and wonder, told as traditional Chinese-style heroic fiction, Dream of the Dragon Pool follows Li Bo on his journey toward certain death in faraway Burma/Myanmar. Unconcerned about the threat of his imminent demise, Li Bo sees his travels as a quest for poetic inspiration. Along the way he befriends the emperor’s most powerful shamaness, accidentally awakens the horrific Blood Dragon and its ghostly slaves, and stumbles into possession of the coveted and legendary Dragon Pool Sword after a dream visit from a Daoist Immortal. Wicked and nefarious enemies and wondrous adventure flow from this exotic and utterly enthralling tale.
FIRST CHINESE LANGUAGE REVIEW is in!
Click here to read the Chinese review.
Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol.16 No.3 (Aug.) 2007, pp.88-89
Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest by Albert A. Dalia Pleasure Boat Studio 2007, 338 pp., 5.5” x 8.5” ISBN 978-1-92935-534-1 paperback • $18.00
Review by Noah Nunberg, J.D. New York Law School
In the West we have become familiar with medieval Daoist heroic legends through grand movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of the Flying Daggers. The characters are larger than life with heroes who have deep connections to the flow of the universe, strong moral characters, and act without hesitation on their convictions. They are confronted by notorious villains who are aligned with the forces of evil, black to the core, and who act without hesitation to fulfill their dark goals. Within the raging conflicts certain characters transcend through the training of their masters or their innate enlightenment from their human frailties into perfected immortals.
One image that captures this passage is known as the Dragon Gate, after which a famous Daoist monastery has been named. The imagery is that of a salmon-like fish swimming upstream and leaping over the last barrier to reach its spawning place to become immortal and transform into a magnificent dragon. The creature is said to have leaped over the dragon’s gate and to become immortal. This reference has been used in Chinese culture to describe the achievement of a major goal, like passing the grueling Confucian tests required to be taken to gain governmental positions.
In the Dream of the Dragon Pool, China history scholar Albert Dalia paints a story of such a passage over the Dragon’s Gate to immortality. He uses the 8th century historical backdrop of the Tang emperor’s exile of Li Bo (701-762), one of China’s best-loved poets who celebrated the alchemical arts of immortality. Li Bo’s downfall was his drunkenness and frank speech in the emperor’s court.
Li Bo begins his upstream quest on the Yangtze River toward certain death in the western regions of Burma/Myanmar with his trusted companions Wang Ah Wu (the “Steel Talon”), who deftly wields his double arrowed cross-bow, and Old Zhou, a boatman, whose intimate knowledge of China’s lakes and rivers inspired Li Bo. Li Bo believes his banishment from the court has dried up his poetic muses. Li Bo befriends a wondrous woman, who unbeknownst to him is the emperor’s shamaness who is escaping from the palace in order to serve the Rain Goddess, who reigns over Mount Wu.
Armed with the sense that his life was worthless and his poetic inspiration is lost, Li Bo, with Wang at his side, travels through a haunted forest to the Dream Castle where in a dreamlike encounter with a Daoist Immortal, he acquires the Dragon Pool Sword, which Li Bo must transport upstream to Mount Wu. However, the grand power of that magical weapon is also sought by the infamous Blood Dragon, who needs the sword to defeat the forces of good so that his eternal evil realm will prevail forever over the worlds of men and immortals.
On his journey Li Bo encounters Ma Ssu Ming, a bandit, swordsman, and musician, who travels with his ghost catching monkey, Lao-huang, who helps him out of several life-threatening situations. They must ward off the pursuing Albino Swordsman, an assassin, who uses a magical black pearl to penetrate his victims’ dreams to work his deadly art.
The men must also face the seductive beauty of Chen Shao-lin, a ghost who was killed and enslaved by the Blood Dragon and must do his bidding or be cast into eternal oblivion. In her ephemeral existence, Chen Shao-lin is torn between her fear of that fate and her fading sense of humanity in her dealings with Li Bo and Wang Ah Wu, while she must avoid Lao-huang who would instantly recognize her for what she was.
Li Bo’s quest leads to unbearable losses that make him doubt the purpose of his journey. Yet his companions in various states of existence combine their forces to inspire him to continue his journey, to enliven his poetic soul and to make his ultimate confrontation with the Blood Dragon on Mount Wu a classic battle in which a future existence under the realm of either evil or good hangs in the balance.
The Dream of the Dragon Pool is an entertaining novel in which Albert Dalia deftly portrays the Tang Dynasty world through medieval Daoist eyes. Dalia’s portrayal of this wondrous passage up the Yangtze is beautifully described on various levels of physical and spiritual existence. The book describes elements of qigong and martial arts. In certain scenes Dalia describes how one uses the breath to enliven the qi to heighten one’s senses in battle. Sword dueling is described in exciting detail. The passage from worldly to spiritual existence is explored in an entertaining way.
The book is enjoyable and worth the read. While on the whole the writing flows smoothly, like a well-performed dynamic taiji form, which is a tribute to the author, one or two strands of the story are left dangling. Nevertheless, for those who love China and its culture and journeys into imaginary worlds, this action packed novel will be a real treat.
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A Wonderful and Engrossing Blend of Fantasy and Chinese Mythology – Five Stars
July 31, 2007
By Daniel Jolley “darkgenius” (Shelby, North Carolina USA)
Amazon Top 50 Reviewer
Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest, Albert A. Dalia’s impressive debut novel, presents readers with a magical blend of fantasy, history, and Chinese mythology. Western literature has only just begun to tap into the wellspring of Far Eastern tradition and mythology, especially China’s “tales of wonder,” which seem almost tailor-made for the fantasy genre, but Albert A. Dalia has already drunk deeply from its refreshing waters. Don’t let that word “Daoist” scare you off; I couldn’t have told you what it meant, either – although I do know there is absolutely nothing “simplistic” about it or this novel. Heck, we’re talking about universal concepts of existence here, mixing it up with profound insights into the very essence of life and dancing around enlightenment itself.
Dalia builds his story around Li Bo (or Li Bai), one of China’s most celebrated poets. History tells us that Li Bo, who lived in the 8th century, got himself exiled from the imperial court, then likely perished in the Yangtze River soon afterward. Dalia’s fantasy begins where history ends, introducing readers to Li Bo and his faithful warrior companion Ah Wu as they set out along the Yangtze River on their way to Li Bo’s probable death in the dangerous land of his exile. The possibility of impending death doesn’t bother Li Bo too much, though, for he is much more concerned with finding the poetic muse that will reawaken the inner poetry he has lost. Whatever inner magic helped him conjure up such immortal poems as Drinking Alone by Midnight is now gone. That is why he makes a point of visiting the mysterious Dragon Pool Temple along the way; the next morning, he leaves the place with the famed Dragon Pool Sword and a mission to deliver it to the Rain Goddess on her sacred mountain. Ah Wu considers the sword dangerous, but Li Bo is determined to fulfill his new, sacred quest.
The men soon meet a fellow traveler and his ghost-catching, alcohol-loving monkey (yes, you read that correctly) both of whom can be good to have around when danger beckons, which it does in the form of an assassin capable of killing people within their very own dreams and a Blood Dragon anxious to get her hands on the unmatched sword. Throw in the emperor’s favorite shamaness attempting to flee to the Rain Goddess’ sacred mountain, as well, and you’ve got yourself quite an engrossing adventure. The emotional heart of the story, though, is Chen, the ghost of a young woman. Bound to do the will of the Blood Dragon, she must befriend and betray Li Bo (whose true identity is unknown to her) against her will; what makes her struggle all the more poignant is the fact that her only remaining solace in her ghostly life is Li Bo’s poetry.
There is plenty of action and excitement, on both land and sea, as Li Bo attempts to fulfill his quest and deliver the Dragon Pool Sword to the Rain Goddess on Mount Wu. All of the characters are wonderfully developed, while the backdrop of this ancient land and time makes for a wonderfully exotic setting for such a fantastic tale. As a long-time scholar of medieval Chinese history, Dalia really knows this long-ago world he is recreating and brings it vividly to life. If you’re a fantasy fan looking for something a little different, or someone with an interest in Chinese history and mythology, or if you just appreciate a well-written novel, you’ll want to undertake this Daoist quest alongside the great poet Li Bo. Dream of the Dragon Pool is a wonderfully engaging novel.
An Extraordinary and Wondrous Tale – Five Stars
July 26, 2007
By Dennis Littrell (SoCal) – Amazon Top 50 Reviewer
Wine and dreams are at the heart of this remarkable novel. Frankly I have never read anything like it. Dalia who is a Chinese scholar has recreated a style and a world view long gone from this realm, a style that interprets the world as dream and mystery, a style that celebrates Dao as an occult religion.
The form of the novel is a quest. Li Bo, a celebrated poet from the eighth century of the current era, whose drunkenness has led to his banishment from the imperial court, is the central character. He has lost his power with words. He is a poet who can no longer rhyme, to whom metaphors no longer occur. He and his warrior companion, Ah Wu, are traveling west as the adventure begins. What will they find? Will they encounter the Daoist immortals? And what does it mean to acquire the Dragon Pool Sword? Is it a curse as Ah Wu believes or an instrument to bring about heavenly recognition to Li Bo and perhaps a return to the imperial court with his poetic powers restored?
Dalia’s prose, like those of a fairy tale master, immerses the reader in the mists of the long ago, into a world in which ghosts and dragons, shamanesses and wondrous magicians, goddesses and monsters, exist in reality as they do in myth. He recalls a vision of this world in which there is no line drawn between the mysterious and the mundane, between the world of spirit and that of mortal flesh. The gods and the goddesses are real. Monkeys can catch ghosts and creatures such as the Albino Swordsman can enter your dreams and kill you while you lie sleeping. The dragon can assume horrific forms, terrible and awesome to the eyes. And mortals can mingle with immortals.
To write such a novel requires a child-like love of mystical adventure combined with a deep understanding of the subconscious of human beings. It requires a love for the legends and the mysteries of the past. Dalia’s quest is to take us back to the supernatural world that existed for the people who lived during the time of the Tang dynasty and to allow that consciousness to invade our minds and envelop us in wonder and mystery. His is a splendid accomplishment, a fantasy rich in imagination and history, an atmospheric tale charged with the phantasmagoric.
Secret Temples, Beautiful Women & One Bad Dragon – Five Stars
July 19, 2007
By Marc Ruby™ “The Noh Hare™” (Warren, MI USA) – Amazon Top 10 Reviewer
Fantasy has had its share of writers that love to use ancient China as a setting. It is a world where the culture seems almost as mythical as the dragons and deities that often lurk around the edges. Those of us who have been around for a bit fondly remember Van Gulik’s Judge Dee and Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung. Kai Lung, of course, was completely imaginary, but Judge Dee was based on a real Chinese character. Adding to this body of English ‘Chinese’ stories is Albert Dalia’s story of Li Bo, also based on a real character a poet and sometimes adventurer living eighth century. We are invited to join Li Bo on his voyage of exile after a life of drunken poetry writing at the Chinese court. A trip full of ghosts, beautiful goddesses, harrowing monsters, and an unending supply of cheap rice wine.
Albert Dalia is a scholar of Chinese literature who is quick to inform us that The Dream of the Dragon Pool is written in a style known as wuxia xiaoshuo, what we might refer to as heroic fiction. Li Bo, who seems equally at home drinking, discussing Daoism and wielding weapons, isn’t quite the heroic material we’ve grown used to in western fiction, but he quickly ingratiates himself to the reader, as do many of the other characters in the story. Characterization is one of the most important factors in the success of the story, that and a pleasant attention to setting that marks much of oriental fiction, and provides a contrasts to the often horrific events taking place on that backdrop.
Li Bo, who seeks to restore meaning to his life, pauses in his journey to spend a night in a tomb on a nameless mountain, seeking a dream that will help him set things right in his life. A dream he gets, but not necessarily on he expects. A mysterious woman gives him the Dragon Pool Sword and requires that he bring it to the Rain Goddess. Evil is on the move, and the sword must go to where it will be best protected. Li Bo and his faithful companion Ah Wu set out, only to run into complications at every turn. A blood dragon sends his minions after the sword. An albino assassin who kills in one’s sleep starts a rain of terror. Good friends become ghosts, and ghosts become good friends. A mysterious swordsman with a monkey in tow might be a friend or maybe he isn’t.
Dalia manages to tell this complex story with striking clarity and natural flow. He comes very close to duplicating the look and feel of the literature from which he draws his inspiration. If fantasy both esoteric and adventurous is to your taste I suggest you seek out Albert Dalia’s work.
[Review copy provided by author].
Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest
Book Review | by Mark Pollard Webmaster/Editor | 2007.07.12
SCORE: Four out of Five Stars
Pleasure Boat Studio
China possesses a rich tradition of fantastical oral and written storytelling that has mostly remained outside the scope of English-language literature, apart from obscure scholarly works. This tradition is brimming with tales of heroic knights, despicable bandits, illicit affairs, courtly intrigue, and strange otherworldly encounters drawn from popular folklore and mythology, often filtered through Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist sentiments.
For years, these tales have provided the basis for the many fantasy, wuxia and kung fu movies produced in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Films like A CHINESE GHOST STORY and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON have given many Westerners their first glimpse of flying sword heroes engaged in battle, fox spirits seducing wandering scholars and mystical mountain retreats of advanced martial and philosophical learning.
More adventurous film enthusiasts have discovered that this is merely a sampling of a broader wealth of cinematic treasures that number in the thousands, from the colorful, classic films of Shaw Brothers studios to the more recent computer effects-filled spectacles of Tsui Hark and his mainland Chinese counterparts. Yet what of their oft overlooked literary and cultural roots and the influences these elements have had on fiction in the Western world?
In China and neighboring territories, wuxia fiction is still immensely popular. The classic works of leading authors Jin Yong and Gu Long have been read by millions around the globe. The wuxia genre’s popularity is comparable to mystery, romance and fantasy genres in the West. It is no wonder, considering that wuxia fiction often draws together elements from all brands of popular genre fiction, in addition to philosophy and religion. Perhaps, this is one reason why Western authors, and readers, have been slow to embrace this genre. In addition to its limited availability in English translation, wuxia fiction is almost overwhelming in its breadth and scope of what is still often seen as foreign. Common facets that longtime readers take for granted can appear as exotic mysteries for newcomers, even those familiar with some of the film adaptations.
Walk into any bookstore in the U.S. and you will discover well-defined sections devoted to general fiction, science fiction (and fantasy), romance, mystery, and mythology. Yet no where will you ever find a wuxia section and likely no where placed among the bookshelves overstuffed with Oprah Book Club picks and NYT bestsellers will you find even a single translated wuxia novel. Interested readers often must special order translations of timeless fantasy and wuxia classics such as A Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh.
Into this seemingly impenetrable realm of ignorance and possibility treads Dream of the Dragon Pool, the first wuxia novel from China scholar and intrepid literary pioneer Albert A. Dalia. To my knowledge, this is also the first English-language wuxia novel ever published. If so, and I’m sure readers will correct me if I am wrong, this marks a very important place, both in the history of publishing and in what I like to see as the growing popularity of Chinese storytelling in Western pop culture.
Pop culture is exactly the term I would use in reference to Dream of the Dragon Pool, for while it may it first glance appear to be a scholarly novelization on the mystical life of a famous Chinese poet of antiquity, it is in actuality as accessible and creative as any Stephen King novel or Hong Kong action movie.
The book’s tale takes place in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, chiefly set along the Yangtze River which runs through south-central China from what is today known as Qinghai Province and eastward to the sea near Shanghai.
The central protagonist is Li Bo, also known as Li Bai (see Wikipedia entry), a historical figure known as one of China’s greatest poets. He is a proud drunkard and womanizer who has recently fallen out of favor with the Emperor and has been sentenced to exile in the Western regions. His only companions on this journey are his faithful servant and boatman, Old Zhou, and his trusted friend and protector Wang Ah Wu.
Ah Wu’s skill with a crossbow and heightened battle senses, honed from years of military service prove invaluable in keeping apparitions at bay as Li Bo makes his way to a fabled Dream Temple in hopes that such a place will aid him in reclaiming his muse.
Along the way Li Bo is visited in his dreams by an old woman who hands him the legendary Dragon Pool Sword and tasks him with transporting it safely to the Rain Goddess atop a 12-peaked mountain further upriver.
Of course, what is a quest without danger and intrigue? Along Li Bo’s path lie a deadly albino assassin who kills people in their sleep, a reluctant golden-haired seductress who happens to be a ghost and a vicious Blood Dragon that sucks the blood of its victims through their armpits and prowls the river in hopes of getting the sword for use in upsetting the balance of good and evil.
Other characters Li Bo encounters include a young, wandering swordsman named Ma Ssu-ming and his ghost-catching monkey, and an unusually powerful Taoist priestess named Shamaness Luo.
Since I primarily write about movies and have read very little translated wuxia literature to date, I am going to relate this novel to Hong Kong cinema. The book plays out a bit like a cross between A CHINESE GHOST STORY and ASHES OF TIME. Like Wong Kar-wai’s film, all of the central characters are outcasts in some form whose lives, or in some cases deaths, intersect at a critical point despite each having distinct aspirations and fates.
There is freshness, a slight spring to Dalia’s writing and approach that nicely counteracts the morbid nature of some of the content. Li Bo is a poet without a poet’s voice, who drowns himself in wine every chance he gets. Yet within him there remains a great love of the simple pleasures and beauty in life that have for years inspired his readers through his writing.
Ah Wu has lost his wife, his sons and his purpose in life as a soldier. Despite his pessimistic mood and rashness, which is in opposition to Li Bo’s temperament, Ah Wu’s friendship with the poet means everything to him.
As a ghost condemned to the Blood Dragon’s service, Chen Shao-lin is the third main character and in many ways represents Joey Wang’s character in A CHINESE GHOST STORY. She is a tragic figure, a victim of evil in life and death whose love of Li Bo’s poetry restores her humanity at a crucial time. She also goes through the greatest character transformation in the story, by attempting to break free from her master’s hold.
Ma Ssu-ming is less well-defined internally and provides more of the typically light-hearted flavor that Hong Kong cinema’s many great supporting characters often do. Ssu-ming is characterized as a great swordsman, but what defines him is his relationship to his simian companion, who he jokingly refers to as his master. He does so while trying to dissuade others from voicing the word “monkey” in its presence. In truth, there is more than meets the eye to his agile friend, although the reader is left to ponder this until the end.
The main threat in the story is of a supernatural nature and comes in the form of the Blood Dragon, a being Dalia defines very well for being something I have never heard of before. It is a petty demon blinded by hatred that exhibits at least as many flaws as the humans it despises so much. Yet the demon’s powers are potent and highly unusual. It can produce assassins from paper dolls splattered in blood. It can transform itself into an attractive female or a hideous serpent. One interesting trait is that the Blood Dragon often takes on the guise of the most hated enemy of those who see it. What Li Bo briefly sees is telling, both for the character and for Dalia as an author who frequently drops little gems into his story that he doesn’t linger on but allows discerning readers to savor.
Although the story moves along quickly and is an easy read, there isn’t a lot of action by typical wuxia standards. Dalia approaches this story, not from the perspective of an action or martial arts buff, but as a writer and scholar. Much of the excitement comes from the internal conflicts and potential that many of the characters exhibit to perform violent acts. For instance, the reader is often teased by the albino assassin. In a basket hat that hides his face, he lurks in the shadows and works his dark arts silently by slipping into the dreams of others to kill them while they sleep. This doesn’t allow for much in the way of sword fights, but it is a clever trick that should be familiar to those who have seen the movie DREAMSCAPE.
Dalia does a fine job of building up to his climaxes and fleshing out his characters gradually, in a way that keeps the reader engaged during their journey up the river. With the emphasis on the yang and yin nature of life and death it is interesting to see how these two states mingle so closely in the story and the players. I don’t know how well this reflects on Chinese thought today, yet it is definitely a different approach from most Western thinking where death is looked upon as the end of the journey. In contrast, death appears to be merely the beginning of a second phase in the existence of beings in this realm where some are condemned to levels of hell, others become immortals and some become unwilling servants of otherworldly creatures.
The real pleasure in reading Dragon Pool is seeing how existence and conflict is witnessed from the perspective that goes beyond life and death. These are merely states with slightly different rules that define them. It gives Dalia a lot of room to play with, yet he keeps the story focused.
The ending comes a bit abruptly as the final conflict arrives with Li Bo and his friends facing the Blood Dragon. Loose ends are tied up quickly and there is a sense that things have happened a little too smoothly. This could be the fault of the storytelling device, which relies on rarely seen, god-like figures that seem to be pulling the strings behind the curtain. This is a common problem with myth telling that involves deities as it strips away some of the mystery of life and death and suggests that the players may be stuck, at least in part, on a predestined track. Regardless, Dalia is working with some interesting concepts that many readers not familiar with classical Chinese philosophy and culture should find interesting at least.
Anyone who enjoys literary-minded martial arts cinema, be it the wuxia and fantasy films of Tsui Hark, Chu Yuan or King Hu, will undoubtedly enjoy reading Dream of the Dragon Pool. It is a mature and polished first offering from Albert A. Dalia that suggests he knows his Chinese source material well and knows how to transfer it into a fun and refreshing tale for English-speaking readers. It is a unique treat to be able to enjoy an original work of fiction that really captures the spirit and flavor of Chinese storytelling. I suspect that Dalia, who possesses four decades of study into medieval Chinese history and culture as his foundation, has a lot more to share. I sincerely hope the Western publishing world and book buying public is ready for his brand of genre fiction because I know I am.
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