Daniel Fox’s Jade Man’s Skin is the second book in the Moshui trilogy inspired by the culture and legends of feudal China, and continues the events set in motion in Dragon in Chains. Han’s dragon is now dangerously free and rules both the strait and the sky, but she finds a greater enemy than Han in an ancient sea goddess who claims possession of the waters and is ready to defend them. On land, the exiled boy-emperor finds courage – or is it foolishness? – in his magical jade, and he decides to fight back against Tunghai Wang and the rebels no matter what his beloved concubine or bodyguard might say. And now, caught between the struggles of goddess, dragon, and emperor, civilians like Tien, Ma Lin, and Chung fight for their loved ones’ survival any way they can, and find themselves embroiled in far more than just their own concerns.
A fantastic middle book
Like its predecessor, Jade Man’s Skin is gorgeously written and a true pleasure to read. Unlike in Dragon in Chains, however, Daniel Fox has found a better balance between luxuriant prose and tense action. Despite a slow start, after the first fifty pages or so Jade Man’s Skin is often supremely exciting, and even during its contemplative moments, the writing is still more fleet-footed and less self-conscious than Dragon in Chains. This is a marked improvement and leads me to hope that the third book, Hidden Cities, will be even more exhilarating.
Another plus is that Jade Man’s Skin is, while certainly a building block for the series, still remarkably cohesive on its own. Of course it would be impossible to read this book as a standalone, but the ending is satisfying and Fox pulls together enough threads in the climax that I finished this book with a contented sigh rather than any anxious scrabbling for the final book. I’ll definitely pick up Hidden Cities to find out what happens, but Jade Man’s Skin is a fantastic read in its own right, as well.
Characters are more strongly developed
In my review of Dragon in Chains, I remarked that Han and Mei Feng’s naïveté occasionally exceeded believability, particularly regarding their relationships with other characters. In Jade Man’s Skin these problems are, while not resolved, at least far enough in the distant past to be less cause for concern – Han has been free of slavery for some time now; Mei Feng is very settled into her role as concubine. At this point in the story I am fully convinced of Mei Feng’s complicated attachment to the emperor, regardless of how implausibly that attachment may have developed. In Han’s case, he has changed so much as a person since his introduction as a character that his growing maturity and relationship with Tien feel completely natural.
Several minor characters from Dragon in Chains play a more important role in Jade Man’s Skin. Tien is a breath of fresh air as a young, intelligent woman who relies on her knowledge to gain power, unlike Mei Feng who relies on the emperor for influence (although Mei Feng is still a dynamic and influential character in her own right). Chung, Mei Feng’s messenger, is a lovable and highly relatable man just trying to do right by the one he loves, a tough soldier named Shen. On the other hand, Ma Lin still only makes a small appearance in this book, which is a real shame since she’s one of the most sophisticated and intelligent characters in the series, and Imperial General Ping Wen also isn’t used to greatest effect – however, I hold out hope for these two in the third book in the trilogy.
The dragon and the goddess
The battle for power between the dragon and the Li-goddess is the most fascinating and underplayed storyline in the book. Both characters – perhaps ‘forces’ is a better word – are so inhuman, so otherworldly, that it’s a real delight to read Daniel Fox’s human characters’ interpretations of the dragon and goddess’s motivations. The relationship between humans and the divine, or between humans and the natural world, is an age-old but relevant theme that I truly hope Fox exploits further in Hidden Cities. In Jade Man’s Skin, the actual mechanics of religion and dragon imprisonment remain frustratingly elusive, but if Fox makes good on his promise, Hidden Cities should be wonderful.
Why should you read this book?
If you enjoyed Dragon in Chains all, you have to pick up Jade Man’s Skin. It improves upon nearly all of the first book’s flaws and continues to build and improve upon the promise of this epic fantasy. Although once again this is not a perfect novel, its positive features far outweigh the negative if you appreciate delicious writing and slow, deep character development.