REVIEW: “Steel Dragons of a Luminous Sky” by Brian Trent

Review of Brian Trent, “Steel Dragons of a Luminous Sky” in Rhonda Parrish, ed., Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline: Dieselpunk and Decopunk Fairy Tales, (World Weaver Press, 2019): 201-219 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Trent sets his story of military intrigue and treachery, filled with floating cities and qilin (I was never sure whether the qilin were fantastic beasts or mechanical contraptions, but the ambiguity contributed to the story rather than frustrating me.), in the Sino-Japanese war. The story focuses on Li Yan, a steel dragon the Luminous Sky, fighting for Chinese nationalism, and his American mercenary compatriot, Eva Eagels.

There were a few aspects about the story that tripped me up — Li Yan was called ‘Li’ throughout, but his brother was Qimei, and I couldn’t figure out how to square this with the Chinese naming practice of putting surname, not given name, first. (Shouldn’t he be Yan? Or both he and his brother be Li?); the fact that this detail was got wrong made me worried about what other details might also be wrong. And while I love reading more SFF set in non-western settings, it sometimes felt like the story hadn’t gotten past its western-centric gaze — when a qilin delivers a young woman to Li, he describes her as “a young Chinese woman”; but while it made sense for him to describe Eva Eagels as American, because that is not the default, shouldn’t the default in China be Chinese? But despite these quibbles, I found Li a sympathetic character told in a distinctive voice, both strong and gentle, dedicated but caring, someone who has managed to keep the promise he ‘d made to his brother before the war — to not let it kill his spirit.

The actual ending seemed a bit out of left-field; but there was a page break a few paragraphs before the end that I almost expect to have been the end. If it had ended “All Under Heaven” (bottom of p. 217), I think it might have been a stronger story, with a strange sense of loss and failure threading through a success greater than what Li and Xin had spoken of achieving.

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