When I read the email from the marketing assistant about The Dragon and the Needle, the plot sounded intriguing – a mysterious disease called ENDS (Extraordinary Natural Death Syndrome) is killing high-profile people around the world, seemingly by old age, and a British doctor and an American acupuncturist team up to find the causes and stop the deaths. My father is a doctor and my mother studied alternative medicine (we had great dinner-table discussion), so I was curious to see if I might learn something new about the relationship between Eastern and Western medicine. Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
The Dragon and the Needle begins with a bang and ends with a whisper. In the first few pages, we see someone assassinated, and then 80% of the book goes by before we see action again. For a thriller, this book has a lot of interpersonal drama, but not a lot of real conflict. Eleanor (the acupuncturist) and Mike (the doctor), who fall in love because they own a vagina and a penis respectively, are not badly fleshed-out characters – we get their whole resume of work history, as well as the plot-relevant information. They’re actually pretty likeable, and made decent company for the sleepless nights I’ve been having recently, but their dialogue is atrocious.
Check out this section:
He [Mike] blurted out, ‘Why are there so many untrained, medically untrained, people in Oriental medicine, especially in acupuncture? It’s downright dangerous!’
Eleanor spoke in softer tones. ‘And isn’t it true that some “qualified” doctors hand out drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies with gay abandon?’
They totally aren’t puppets for the author’s beliefs, what are you talking about… they even have heroic lines when the author wants them to be action figures:
ELEANOR: I am already working for a better world, a healthier one. I want to save life and prevent suffering. Not kill and cause pain!
MIKE: My God! I’ll work on! And I’ll help find the bastards who killed him!
Their interior dialogue isn’t all that great, either. What starts as a strong female character ends up being dependent on the male by the end. It starts with little slips, comments on Mike’s strength, but before you know it she’s crying on his shoulder, getting nervous as soon as she’s away from him for more than ten minutes, and relying on him to rescue her from the bad guys at the end. How nauseating is this line:
Eleanor was standing near the window, her hands covering her ears, perhaps expecting more deafening shots. But instead she saw Mike coming towards her, dressed in uniform. A moment later they were in each other’s arms.
Yick. Similarly, the book starts out sounding friendly to acupuncture and Chinese medicine, as well as Chinese people, but by the end it becomes a full-blown Yellow Peril narrative. Part of the definition of Yellow Peril is “The fear that [Asian people] would eventually take over and destroy western civilization, replacing it with their ways of life and values.” This is essentially the danger revealed at the end of The Dragon and the Needle. The quaint Oriental phrases and Eleanor’s defense of Oriental medicine throughout the book is superseded by clichés of Chinese cold affect, and the fact that (SPOILER) the Chinese are using acupuncture to kill people and bring the Chinese non-Capitalist lifestyle to people all over the world. Somehow Ah-Ming never thought that using acupuncture to kill people might make them less likely to trust acupuncture. I’m also not certain how killing certain celebrities (like the President’s daughter? A random British noble who had been to China?) figured into their plan of world domination.
It’s possible I’m expecting too much from an indie novel, and a new author, but I’m not ashamed of having high standards. If it was a draft, I’d say it’s okay but the author needs to work harder to avoid clichés in the plot and the dialogue. And don’t let 60% of the book be dialogue if it’s going to be stock dialogue. And if you give a character a special skill, give her something to do with it! I was disappointed that Eleanor never got to use acupuncture to cure an important patient or find the cause of the mysterious illness.
The one good thing I can say for The Dragon and the Needle is that it was mostly free of typos (only noticed one), grammatical errors, and continuity errors, which makes for a smooth reading experience. I do appreciate that – readability isn’t always something you can count on in the indie publishing world.