Hidden Cities is the final installment in Daniel Fox’s Moshui trilogy. The first book, Dragon in Chains, and the second, Jade Man’s Skin, have already been reviewed at The Ranting Dragon. Hidden Cities begins with the exiled boy-emperor’s first victory against the rebels, but this victory is slim indeed and only happens with the luck of the dragon. In the battle’s aftermath, concubine Mei Feng convinces the emperor to send the secretly treacherous general Ping Wen across the strait to the mainland to govern the coastal city of Santung. Ping Wen soon encounters Tien, a doctor’s niece, who, in between healing rebel and imperial soldiers alike, has discovered a library full of secret, mystical books that may help recapture the all-powerful dragon. Throughout the epic battles and intrigue, many more small yet significant lives are woven, like the two broken children destroyed by war, a jade miner torn between two loves, and a mother-cum-priestess who fails to save her daughters.
Beautiful and heartrending
Once again, Fox’s prose astounds. Each book in Moshui improves upon its predecessor, and Hidden Cities is full of the rich, magical, transportive writing that makes this series so unique. I’ve raved about the writing in every review, but Fox’s style is worth it. Like I’ve said before, the book’s poetry may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I will say that Fox has definitely improved his game. The action scenes in Hidden Cities, unlike in Dragon in Chains, are always immediately exciting and breathtakingly described at the same time. Despite my understandable desire to find out what happens at the end of Moshui, I’m still glad I took the time to read this book slowly and savor the language. It’s fantastic in all senses of the word.
No punches pulled
The characters of Moshui’s first two novels are lively and vivid, and Hidden Cities is no different. Major characters like Mei Feng, Han, Yu Shan, and Jiao achieve even greater depth and emotional resonance, while previously minor characters like Tien, Ma Lin, and Chung are happily given more prominence.
That said, don’t expect everyone to get a happy ending. Every character in Moshui goes through hell and none of them emerge unscathed. In some places the emotional pain is so potent that the novel becomes hard to read – which is, really, the mark of a truly excellent book. Two moments even made me cry. You may not end up in tears – Fox’s gorgeous writing never makes you forget that what you’re reading is purely fictional – but nevertheless, Fox is unafraid to take his plot to its natural conclusion, and for many characters that’s not a happy place at all.
But for the reader? It’s immensely satisfying.
Missed potential … or is it?
This is a nearly perfect book, and yet I can’t give it five stars since, as an epic fantasy, Moshui fails to reach its potential. The culture and religion remain vague, while the large cast, crammed into just three books, isn’t quite done justice; some emotional scenes and dark decisions feel too short, too unexplored. Also, the ending of Hidden Cities leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. I finished the book uneasily balanced between feeling a wistful desire for more in the knowledge that all good things come to an end, and also feeling downright upset that the author didn’t finish what he started.
And yet … I can’t help but hope that this feeling of incompletion is intentional. There are enough loose ends straggling at the end of Hidden Cities that, perhaps, Daniel Fox has another series set in this world hidden up his sleeve. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to return to the world of Moshui. (And if it’s not the case, I’m very disappointed.)
Why should you read this book?
With Hidden Cities, Moshui: The Books of Stone and Water trilogy improves in every category that made Dragon in Chains so worth reading in 2009. This trilogy isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly one of the most excellent fantasy series in recent years. Fox’s beautiful style makes this series utterly unique, and the many sophisticated characters are unforgettable. This is a book to savor slowly at night before bed.