Most epic fantasy written in English has its basis in Western culture. While the worlds created in these books are not our world, they are generally recognizable: the use of language is comfortable, the foods are what we or our ancestors ate, the customs are basically familiar. Even mythological creatures look the way we expect them to, so that unicorns have horns and dragons have wings. When there are exceptions to these rules, the author is certain to provide an explanation, and the exception is often integral to the tale.
In recent years, however, the Far East has begun to appear in fantasy more and more often. Daniel Abraham’s LONG PRICE QUARTET, for instance, is set in a vaguely Far Eastern milieu. R. Scott Bakker’s THE PRINCE OF NOTHING series has a Far Eastern feel. And Daniel Fox’s series, MOSHUI: THE BOOKS OF STONE AND WATER is explicitly set in China — not quite our China, and not quite Pu-Yi, the last emperor in our universe, but in China in some alternate universe. I have learned for the first time that Chinese dragons can fly, but do not have wings.
The first book of the series, Dragon in Chains, is set in Taiwan and the strait in between it and mainland China. The young emperor has fled to this island in the face of a rebellion by one of his generals, who has considerable military backing. Taiwan — here called Taishu-island — is his last refuge. It is not at all clear how or even if he will be able to reclaim his empire, even though he has the Jade Throne with him, a furnishing that is essential to anyone who would claim to be emperor.
Although the rebellion is the frame for this novel, the picture in the frame is considerably more complex and populated by numerous interesting characters and subplots. One such character is Han, who is a scribe’s servant when the book opens but who quickly becomes both more and less than that as fate wraps its arms around him. Old Yen and his granddaughter, Mei Feng, fish in the strait on the boat that is their family’s only valuable possession — even more valuable in a time of war, and especially when commandeered to carry the emperor. Li Ton, a brutal pirate, has his own agenda that seems to have nothing to do with the rebellion, politics or the emperor, but looks can be deceiving — especially in his case. Yu Shan is a member of a clan that mines jade in the interior of the island; all jade belongs to the emperor, by law, but Yu Shan is part of jade, and jade a part of him, and it has properties that make him an unusual young man. And overlying all of them is the dragon, chained to the bottom of the sea, angry at her captivity and eager to take her revenge.
The stories of all these characters, and several more, are woven together with skill by Fox. He is able to follow several related themes at once without confusing the reader and ultimately brings them together in a conclusion that, upon reading, seems inevitable.
Fox writes especially well about how war affects the people who live in a city that comes under attack. I found it difficult to read about Ma Lin and her family, and came away from the book admiring her most greatly among the characters. In fact, Fox’s women seem generally to be very resilient individuals, smart beyond their apparent stations in life, and very much survivors no matter what the odds. Fox’s men seem often to be led by the women, usually without their knowledge, giving the women in this patriarchal society much more power than is immediately apparent.
Ably written and with an uncommon setting, this fantasy series is worth reading.
Fantasy novels have a habit of treading over familiar territory and Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains is no exception with youthful protagonists, an empire divided by rebellion, pirates, and a dragon among the book’s most obvious tropes. On top of that, the book follows a standard ‘first-volume-in-a-trilogy’ formula including an emphasis on character development and setting, unresolved storylines, and an ending that leaves readers hanging. Fortunately, the book is not all archetypical and because of parts like the setting, the characterization and the prose, Dragon in Chains has much more to offer than your average fantasy novel.
Firstly, the world of Dragon in Chains possesses an oriental theme — specifically Chinese — which immediately lends the book a different flavor from other fantasies, especially those with a pseudo-medieval setting. This is most evident by the role that jade plays in the book, not only as a symbol of the emperor’s power, but as a stone imbued with magical properties, while other cultural influences include the importance of ceremony. While I loved the Asian setting though, I thought the world-building was a bit lacking particularly toward the world’s history and religion as well as the reasons behind the rebellion and the imprisonment of the dragon, two of the novel’s most important storylines. I also felt that court politics and the difference between noble life and a fishergirl’s life were underdeveloped.
Characterization meanwhile, is one of the book’s strongest assets. Han, Mei Feng, Mei Feng’s grandfather Old Yen, and Yu Shan are all likeable characters infused with depth, personality and compassion, and their narratives are all the more compelling because of it. Plus, they are complemented by a very strong supporting cast — the pirate captain Li Ton, the emperor Chien Hua, the bandit woman Jiao, the jade carver Gaungli, etc. — who are almost as interesting as the main players. Unfortunately, because characterization is such a focal point of the novel, other areas tend to suffer, such as the story’s slow pacing, a lack of action, and the aforementioned world-building issues. There were also two narratives in Ma Lin and the rebel leader Tunghai Wang that seemed pointless, but I’m hoping the characters will figure more prominently in the sequels.
The novel’s greatest strength however, lies with Daniel Fox’s poetic prose:
Gently, gently, one coaxes stone from darkness. Impossible to lift and carry through these awkward channels, where a man may be crawling at one time and then slithering on his belly and then sidling through a vertical crack, a large stone must be dragged, slid, rolled, inveigled on its way. Never coerced. Flesh can be crushed and stretched and scraped, but stone is immutable.
Lay hands on jade — even through sacking, through layers of sacking — and there is never any hurry but there is a surging urgency, a riptide in the blood, a brightening. Yu Shan had known it all his life. This stone made his skin shiver and his bones yearn; he wanted to rear up and break the hill apart above his head, to raise the stone to the sky and roar its wonder.
It did take me a little while to get used to the prose, and there are moments when the author’s writing style is more clumsy than elegant, but it really adds a unique dimension to the novel and makes even the mundane seem marvelous. One drawback of the prose however, was the narrative voices which all tended to sound the same, but that was a relatively minor problem.
Despite some issues with world-building, slow pacing, familiar fantasy tropes, and getting used to the writing style, I mostly found Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains to be a refreshing and spellbinding experience, one that I very much look forward to continuing. Definitely a novel — and a series — that should be on every fantasy reader’s radar.