Why are the second books of trilogies so difficult? Jade Man’s Skin is the second book of MOSHUI: THE BOOKS OF STONE AND WATER, a series set in an alternate China where dragons are real and jade has the power to make an emperor nearly invincible. I greatly enjoyed Dragon in Chains, the first in this series. And I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy Jade Man’s Skin; only that I enjoyed it less. It seems to start somewhere and end somewhere, but there is a great deal of chatter in between.
In the second book in Daniel Fox’s trilogy, the dragon inhabiting the strait between the mainland of the empire (which is clearly China, though it is not given a name) and Taishu (which appears to be Taiwan in our world) has been mostly unchained, but is not entirely free. Not only is she somehow bound to the boy, Han, whose own chains, once stricken, unleashed the dragon, but she is also forbidden to act whenever she chooses by the goddess of the strait, the Li-goddess. The Li-goddess’s sympathies appear to lie with the young emperor, Chien Hua, but that is not entirely clear; indeed, it seems that her sympathies are most explicitly with the fisherman, Old Yen, the grandfather of Mei Ling, who is the emperor’s first — and so far, only — concubine.
Almost everyone is at odds with everyone else in this chapter of Fox’s trilogy. General Ping Wen wants the emperor’s throne, but he is ostensibly the emperor’s principal protector at the moment, the one in charge of the armed forces who remain loyal to Chien Hua. Tunghai Wang, the soldier who led the rebellion again the emperor that forced him to flee to Taishu, does not know of Ping Wen’s ambitions, but relies upon him to assassinate the emperor. Mei Ling and the emperor’s mother know of Ping Wen’s treachery, but are unable to convince the emperor, who wants to follow Ping Wen’s advice to launch an assault on the mainland.
Yes, there are many different characters and story arcs to keep track of in Jade Man’s Skin. Some characters who played significant roles in Dragon in Chains, such as the jade master, Guangli, and the pirate, Li Ton, have only walk-on roles here, as the epic grows beyond what can be contained in a single volume. New characters appear, like the eunuch Jung, and Siew Ren, of whom we only heard tangentially in the first book. It soon becomes difficult to remember who everyone is in this vast cast of characters. It is difficult to pay the close attention necessary to keep everyone in his or her place, as the story sags under its own weight and, it must be said, even becomes boring through the middle half of the book. Things pick up considerably as we approach the final battle, but until then, there is much squabbling and talking with little action, and little resolved.
This is so common in trilogies that it is almost not worth reporting. But one must wonder: why do writers write trilogies if they don’t have enough story to fill two books? Why not write a duology and keep it exciting throughout? I’m quite sure that the answer is simply financial, the theory being that three books will earn more money than two, but (while I am not privy to publishing figures on the question) I tend to doubt that that is the case. Surely readers who are disappointed in the second book will not buy the third.
I enjoy that Fox’s trilogy is sent in the Far East, a culture with which I have little familiarity, either in life or in fiction (or even in fantasy). I enjoy the magic system at work here, and I particularly enjoy the realization that Chinese dragons do not have wings, though they fly. Think about the depictions of Chinese dragons you’ve seen on scrolls or kimonos; no wings, see? For all my life, that has eluded me somehow, and now it’s clear to me that Chinese dragons seem to swim through the air, flying by a means of propulsion unknown in the West. Even if I did not enjoy the problems that arise in the romance between Mei Feng and Chien Hua (though I did); even if I did not enjoy Chung’s romantic dilemma (though I did); even if I were not interested in Han’s relationship with the dragon (though I was); I would find the time I put into reading this book repaid by this new knowledge of Chinese dragons. Sometimes the smallest details can enchant completely. And certainly, any trilogy will provide any reader with a plethora of details; it only takes one to fascinate.
CLASSIFICATION: Like its predecessor Dragon In Chains, Jade Man’s Skin is a character-driven, Asian-influenced epic fantasy in the vein of Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, Kate Elliott’s CROSSROADS series and Lian Hearn’s TALES OF THE OTORI.
FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 432 pages divided over 6 titled parts with each part divided into numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person via several POVs including the slave-boy Han, the fishergirl-turned-emperor’s mistress Mei Feng, Mei Feng’s grandfather Old Yen, the young jade miner Yu Shan, an imperial messenger named Chung, the doctor’s daughter Tien, and the bandit woman Jiao. Minor narratives include the mother Ma Lin, the rebel leader Tunghai Wang, and the imperial general Ping Wen.
Jade Man’s Skin is the second volume in the MOSHUI: THE BOOKS OF STONE AND WATER TRILOGY after Dragon In Chains, and ends on another cliffhanger. The third book in the trilogy is currently titled Hidden Cities. February 16, 2009 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of Jade Man’s Skin via Del Rey. Cover art once again provided by Robert Hunt.
ANALYSIS: Thanks to mouth-watering prose, compelling characters, and an oriental-flavored backdrop, Daniel Fox’s Dragon In Chains was one of the better fantasy novels I had the pleasure of reading in 2009. Because of that, I had very high expectations for the sequel, Jade Man’s Skin, and the second volume in the MOSHUI TRILOGY delivers with another rewarding reading experience, albeit an experience that is very much like the one found in Dragon In Chains.
The reason for this similarity is simple: Jade Man’s Skin shares all of the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor. For instance, strong points once again include Daniel Fox’s lyrical prose:
“The tiger leaped down like moonlight pouring from a jug, a vivid flow immediate in movement and immediate to halt. When it had landed on the path before them, it was entirely still again. And then it had turned and was leaving, leaping away, and was gone; and its absence was a sudden aching hollow in the world that the night could rush into, rush and rush and never hope to fill.”
and engaging characterization. Of the former, Daniel Fox’s prose is as beautiful as it was in Dragon In Chains, but at the same time I felt it was even more graceful. As far as the characters, Jade Man’s Skin continues to feature a rich, diverse and fully-developed cast of men, women and youths who all play an integral role in the author’s elaborate web of war, betrayal, and love. Of the characters themselves, I was most impressed with Chung’s and Tien’s increased role in the book, saddened with Han’s diminished one, and disappointed that Tunghai Wang, Ma Lin, and General Ping Wen did not receive more face time.
Meanwhile, weak points range from listless world-building to a story that suffers from sluggish pacing, slow-developing plots, and over-used fantasy tropes (dragons, a divided empire, an impetuous emperor, a goddess who manifests through people, etc), all problems that appeared in the first book. Fortunately, these are minor issues when looking at Jade Man’s Skin as a whole since world-building and the story play second fiddle to characterization and Daniel Fox’s prose. Nevertheless, I wish the author had been able to delve further into the history and lore surrounding the Empire, the imprisoned dragon, and the Li-goddess. The story itself is actually pretty interesting despite its familiarity, but most of the novel’s major twists and turns are fairly easy to figure out, including the book’s climactic scenes.
In addition to sharing the same strengths and weaknesses as Dragon In Chains, Jade Man’s Skin also follows the same formula as the first book, emphasizing character development, telling a story that comes to a stopping point but with unresolved storylines, and ending on a cliffhanger. In fact, apart from the cliffhanger, Jade Man’s Skin doesn’t read like your typical ‘middle volume’ in a trilogy. Instead, the book reads more like the continuation of a single novel that was split into three parts, and I expect that Hidden Cities will also follow suit.
CONCLUSION: In the end, I had pretty much the same experience reading Jade Man’s Skin as I did reading Dragon In Chains, which can be construed as either a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. For instance, if you didn’t like the first book in the MOSHUI TRILOGY or can’t stand novels where story or world-building take a backseat to characterization and prose, then avoid this sequel. On the other hand, if you enjoyed reading Dragon In Chains and want more of the same, then you can’t go wrong with Daniel Fox’s Jade Man’s Skin.