Inspired by the culture and myths of feudal China, Dragon in Chains is the first book in Daniel Fox’s Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water trilogy. Four main characters’ stories are bolstered by a large supporting cast, and the action ranges from a slave boy’s efforts to subdue the chained dragon beneath the sea, to a jade miner caught up in banditry and addiction, to a young fishergirl’s sudden plunge into imperial politics when the young emperor-in-exile chooses her for a concubine. These disparate storylines, all equally important, slowly and inevitably lock together in preparation for the next book in the trilogy.
Lush, mouth-watering prose
Daniel Fox’s writing is luxuriant and sensuous. He takes time with his phrasing, and some passages are even more gorgeous read aloud than on the page. He is obviously enamoured by the historical period that inspired the series and relishes the descriptions of his world. On some rare occasions, the poetry of Fox’s writing veers into awkwardness, but for the most part the text is completely immersive.
The downside of such beautiful writing is that it occasionally overshadows the action scenes, which need faster-paced prose to convey their urgency. Some potentially exciting events wallow instead, as Fox sacrifices immediacy for a pretty turn of phrase. Other reviewers have bemoaned the lack of action in Dragon in Chains, but I think there is actually an enormous amount of action in the book—it’s just buried beneath paragraphs of poetry.
Engaging characters, but occasionally unbelievable
Most of the characters in Dragon in Chains are complicated and wonderful, and I found myself emotionally attached to them very quickly. Most of the main characters—Han the slave, Mei Fung the fishergirl, and Yu Shan the jade miner—tend towards youthful naïveté, just like in most fantasy epics, but the cast is refreshed by Mei Fung’s old grandfather and fearless Jiao the bandit. The emperor isn’t anyone we haven’t seen before: young, controlled by his powerful mother, and exiled by rebellious forces. This is fairly typical stuff. But the imprisoned, otherworldly dragon is promising and the pirate captain, Li Ton, is deliciously, understandably villainous. (But he’s not a villain, mind you. It’s more complicated than that.)
The naïveté of Han and Mei Fung, however, occasionally exceeds plausibility. Han accepts his changes in ownership with hardly a shrug, his loyalties shifting easily from owner to owner, and Fox spends too little time on the relationships between Han and his various owners to account for these flexible loyalties. Mei Fung is even worse. Although in every other way an excellent character, she shows nearly complete disregard for her old fishing life once the emperor takes her for a concubine. How does she so readily adapt to imperial life? Doesn’t she miss her family and friends of old? And why does she so quickly feel affection for a man who bought her? The absent answers to these questions bothered me for the entire book.
The power of jade
Jade’s importance in Dragon in Chains is fascinating. Forbidden to any but the emperor, jade isn’t just a beautiful stone but also imparts superhuman strength, endurance, speed, and health to any who spend much time in contact with the stone. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but jade’s powers open up a lot of possibilities for future plot lines—possibilities that are not exploited in Dragon in Chains, but hopefully in The Jade Man’s Skin and Hidden Cities.
The other magic system, rune writing, plays an important but understated role. It’s unclear so far whether it only affects the dragon or whether it has further magical uses in the empire. Religion and magic are also, as yet, fairly undeveloped in the book, but there are definitely hints of more to come later in the series.
Why should you read this book?
This is a classic epic fantasy set in a more original world than the typical fantastic version of medieval Europe. The writing is glorious, the plot is gripping, and the characters are—for the most part—engaging and believable. Any flaws in Dragon in Chains have ample opportunity to be resolved or explained in the next two books in the trilogy. You’ll likely enjoy it if you enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet or anything by Guy Gavriel Kay.