Shown through Queenie Chan′s stunning illustrations and comics, the story follows the stone spirit Gold′s entertaining adventures throughout history. His escapades include seducing a dragon princess, attempting to steal one of the Tiger′s wives, making bets with demons, and working for the Blue Dragon of the East.Small Shen follows Gold, a minor deity who featured in Kylie Chan's Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang trilgies. I've read the Dark Heavens trilogy and the first book of Journey to Wudang and I have to admit I never paid a huge amount of attention to Gold. But Small Shen endeared him to me significantly. He's a bisexual, gender-swapping rock in human form. What's not to like?
Eventually, as a result of his crimes against Heaven and his constant philandering, Gold is ordered to join the household of Xuan Wu, the Dark Lord of the Northern Heavens. Xuan Wu is also known as John Chen, a Hong Kong businessman.
The story then follows Gold and Jade -- the dragon princess - in contemporary Hong Kong. The two small shen must help guard John Chen′s beloved human wife and baby daughter from demon attack. John Chen is vulnerable to attack while living on Earth, but his family are in the most danger of all...
There are two story threads in Small Shen: flashbacks to Gold's earlier days starting back in the 1700s and the story of Gold's service to Xuan Wu and John Chen and his wife in the 1990s. The flashbacks are mostly about Gold committing mischief and getting into trouble but also sketch out the series of events that led to him and Jade (a dragon) being in Xuan Wu's employ. The 1990s storyline tells the story of Xuan Wu/John Chen and his life with his wife Michelle from Gold's point of view. Anyone who's read White Tiger (Dark Heavens book 1) knows how that story must end (big spoiler for Small Shen).
What I found sort of interesting is how unlikeable Michelle was. She spent a lot of time complaining about Xuan Wu's godly responsibilities (he's the second most powerful god after the Jade Emperor) and how hideous his True Form (and basically anything other than human form) is. While I sort of already knew about that it was kind of horrifying seeing it on the page. Like why did they stay together/bother getting married? It does not strike me as a very healthy relationship at all. And that's without the more benign diva qualities Michelle brings in. I have to say, she wasn't supposed to be a likeable character (I'm pretty sure) and that bothered me a bit on principle (only partly because it made their marriage a bit baffling).
I particularly liked the way in which the story was broken up with illustrated flashback vignettes which mixed things up a bit. One aspect which was nice was the way in which Gold's historical shenanigans touched on Chinese history in a real-world sense, rather than just a mythological sense.
Small Shen was a fun read and I highly recommend it to all Kylie Chan fans and to anyone wanting to get a taste of her longer series. Although the trilogies are pure prose, the story in Small Shen — especially the 1990s story — gives a good idea of the sort of thing you can expect in the Dark Heavens trilogy (not to mention all the foreshadowing). Fans of Queenie Chan who aren't familiar with Kylie Chan's writing will, I'm sure, find more to like than just the illustrations.
4.5 / 5 stars
Format read: Paper.
Source: Purchased from an Australian bookshop several months ago
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge