In the eight years since her love, John Chen - also known as Xuan Wu, God of the Northern Heavens - was exiled from earth, Australian Regent of the Northern Heavens (Probationary) and Acting Grand Master Emma Donahoe has consolidated her position as his manager pro tem and guardian of his heir, the now-sixteen-year-old Simone. Emma's powers and her ability to control them has developed in the intervening years, and she has a good relationship with most of the other members of the supernatural Parthenon, including the Jade Emperor. The only significant exception is the scheming son of the King of the Demons, One Two Two - Emma knows he's behind not only the continual attacks on her academy but also responsible for the disturbing hybrid demons that have been emerging over the past decade.
Of course, that's not her only concern - she has to balance Simone's human preferences (including going to ordinary school) with the need to have defend New Wudang Martial Arts Academy's structure, students and staff from demon attack. That's while juggling the competing needs and preferences and whims of dozens of people, Shen and renounced demons. All without revealing either her demon nature (the result of being deliberately sprayed with demon essence) or her giant black snake alter ego. And in the interim there's the wait for John's eventual return, and the hunt for their dear friend Leo, taken to Hell eight years earlier.
The much awaited Heaven to Hell is the first in a new three-part series that builds on the Dark Heavens trilogy.
The first series introduced the characters and the universe, which is set within the rich mythology of Chinese folklore and theology - I commented in my earlier reviews that I'm sure a deeper knowledge of this area would have enhanced my enjoyment of the series.
Heaven to Hell has moments to delight in, including the comment, when instantly transporting between places, that:
JK Rowling did something like this in Harry Potter," I said.
"Well, she can sue the Jade Emperor," Simone said, recited the words and disappeared.
I also really liked the appearance of "a visitor from home - an Australian who I vaguely recognised... obviously Aboriginal; she appeared to be in her mid-sixties, only about a metre and a half tall... [with] the extremely dark skin and strong features of a pre-blood Aborigine, a flat nose and wide mouth, and short dark curly hair shot with grey." She's Uluru, the Grandmother of All Rocks, who moonlights as a professor of comparative literature. It's unfortunate, however, that these moments were rare. Earth to Hell is thicker than its predecessors, both in physical dimension and in content. There are innumerable fights between the good guys and a variety of demons, that inevitably conclude with our heroes triumphing - and those that are fallen merely travel through hell and return, so there are few real consequences. In many of these scenes I felt as though I was watching a contemporary action film, with the camera held so close to the activity that it's difficult to distinguish between players, let alone tell what's going on.
And Emma seems to have become a Mary-Sue, adept at almost every challenge, increasingly strong and powerful yet keeping her irreverence. I really liked her character in the earlier books, but got no real sense of her here except as a cipher at best, and template at worst.
Most distressingly, I didn't really care - about Emma, Simone, Leo, or the fate of the universe. This, I think, was for three reasons. The characters I particularly liked last time around are less present or wholly absent in Earth to Hell, and those that are present are thinly drawn in favour of a stronger emphasis on action. Sub-plots that seem important - like Simone being expelled from school or truancy, and her dogged insistence that she won't go to school with 'freaks' - vanish into nothing significant. And more than half the time I felt as though I was missing important information, that I'd either forgotten from the first series (which I read only six months ago) or which was not well introduced. And that meant that I never became as immersed in the text as I hoped. I'll certainly read the next in the Journey to Wudang series, but with less anticipation. - Alex
1. White Tiger
2. Red Phoenix
3. Blue Dragon
The Journey to Wudang trilogy:
1. Earth to Hell
2. Hell to Heaven
3. Heaven to Earth