Review | River Dragon Sky, Justin Nicholes

I’m a sucker for good cover art, and the cover of Justin Nicholes’ River Dragon Sky caught my attention immediately. Kudos to Justin Kowalczuk for the beautiful cover image.

In a debate over the importance of guanxi (connections, or, more specifically defined by the professor, nepotism), university student Zhuan He argues that the importance of guanxi shouldn’t even be in question — we all use it. “It is part of the human being,” she says. “You have to cut out his heart if you want to cut out guanxi.” She adds that if you ask Americans what they like about China, “they will say the Chinese are cooperative where the Americans quibble. It’s in all the textbooks.” [64% of eARC]

I include these quotes because they seem to me indicative of the general thrust of this novel. River Dragon Sky explores the connections between five characters — Zhuan He, her boyfriend Feng, Russian professor Kal (also Zhuan He’s lover), American missionary David (also Feng’s professor), and the seer Junping (who believes Zhuan He is his long-lost daughter Xiling). Their lives intersect in a web of connections — Kal for example frames David as Zhuan He’s lover, so Feng becomes insanely jealous of the wrong man; Feng becomes an obsessive stalker, yet Junping as well watches Zhuan He closely; the university is concerned over arson cases when we know fairly early on the arsonist’s identity; and so on.

Adding to the complexity of the story are shifts in time and perspective — we learn about Junping’s courtship of Xiling’s mother, as well as Kal’s history of trouble at school. Nicholes also adds cross-cultural complexity — Zhuan He, for example, knows that her classmates view her relationship with Kal as a bid to leave China, and as she says in her debate speech, “If you do [marry your coach], maybe you marry him because he can enable you to do something. Can you go abroad to study, to practice English, without guanxi?” [64%] It’s quite a lot for a novel to cover, and in the hands of, say, David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami, this tale could have been amazing. Unfortunately, in Nicholes’ hands, the story just feels disjointed, convoluted and erratic. There are a few moments of beautiful insight, and chapters that drew me in to the story, yet for the most part, I found myself either confused or detached.

A lot of it, I think, had to do with language. In attempting to create an atmosphere of great import, Nicholes veers too much into abstraction and waits too long before giving the reader something concrete to grasp. Take for example the following passage:

The memory that Junping had teased from the American was from a long time before. He sucked in a break while thinking it over. His stomach burned.

In other life, Junping had lifted a newborn’s hand to his face and pressed his lips into its palm. The smell had been sour. The child had been cradled in blankets beside a woman.

Junping stumbled back against the wall. He brought his hands up to his face because he couldn’t believe what was happening. Another ghost approached him (they had visited, shifting shapes, before), another omen come to unsettle him, to prevent him from glimpsing, when that walking stick lay in his deathbed in place of his body (the sign that he’d achieved immortality), the all-subsuming Tao.

It was a girl. She was reading the hexagrams he had drawn into the paper. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe who this was. But it was true, and it all made sense.

But why? After all these years? [5%]

The narration is probably supposed to be dramatic, building up to the big reveal about who the girl was. Unfortunately, the dramatic impact is undercut by the lack of clarity. The sentence about the ghost is a prime example of what I mean about abstraction. Nicholes injects some spirituality and horror into the narrative, but uses an overly convoluted sentence with bracketed clauses that distract more than elucidate. As well, at this point, we have no idea why Junping is so affected, or why he’s thinking of ghosts and the Tao.

It’s frustrating for a reader, and even within this passage, we still have so many unanswered questions. Who is this newborn and this woman? How can we tell when the flashback begins and ends? Where did these hexagrams come from? Who is this girl, why did she have such an effect on Junping, and what does all this have to do with the baby?

The language also gets oddly formal, or at times rather awkward, making me wonder if this is a translation (it’s not). Take for example “before he had molted the identity of Yang Dong” [5%], “Kal had revolted against his dad” [27%], and “he’d absconded with Darlene” [27%].

I don’t usually mind difficult books, but in this case, the language wasn’t compelling enough to put me under its spell, and the payoff (various revelations and insights throughout) didn’t feel significant enough to merit the self-important tone. It’s not a bad book. I did enjoy the kung fu scenes and the relationship between Zhuan He and Kal. I also found Feng’s stalker tendencies creepy and David’s attempts to stay out of the love triangle drama somewhat amusing. Overall, however, I think much could have been streamlined and clarified.


Thank you to Signal 8 Press for an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.


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