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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

“Dragon In Chains” by Daniel Fox (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Read An Excerpt HERE

ABOUT DRAGON IN CHAINS: Deposed by a vicious usurper, a young emperor flees with his court to the small island of Taishu. There, with a dwindling army, a manipulative mother, and a resentful population—and his only friend a local fishergirl he takes as a concubine—he prepares for his last stand.

In the mountains of Taishu, a young miner finds a huge piece of jade, the potent mineral whose ingestion can gift the emperor with superhuman attributes. Setting out to deliver the stone to the embattled emperor, Yu Shan finds himself changing into something more than human, something forbidden.

Meanwhile, a great dragon lies beneath the strait that separates Taishu from the mainland, bound by chains that must be constantly renewed by the magic of a community of monks. When the monks are slaughtered by a willful pirate captain, a maimed slave assumes the terrible burden of keeping the dragon subdued. If he should fail, if she should rise free, the result will be slaughter on an unimaginable scale.

Now the prisoner beneath the sea and the men and women above it will shatter old bonds of loyalty & love and forge a common destiny from the ruins of an empire…

CLASSIFICATION:Dragon In Chains” is a character-driven, oriental-influenced epic fantasy that reminded me of a cross between 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 416 pages divided over six parts with each part divided into numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person via four main POVs including the slave-boy Han, the fishergirl-turned-emperor’s mistress Mei Feng, Mei Feng’s grandfather Old Yen, and the young jade miner Yu Shan. Minor narratives include the wife/mother Ma Lin, the rebel leader Tunghai Wang, and the imprisoned dragon herself.

Dragon In Chains” is the opening volume in the Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water trilogy so there are unresolved storylines and a cliffhanger, but I thought the novel came to a reasonable stopping point. The second and third books in the series are currently titled “Jade Man’s Skin” and “Hidden Cities”. January 27, 2009 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “Dragon In Chains” via
Del Rey. Cover art is provided by Robert Hunt.

ANALYSIS: Fantasy novels have a habit of treading over familiar territory and Daniel Fox’sDragon 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 like 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.

CONCLUSION: Despite some issues with world-building, slow pacing, familiar fantasy tropes, and getting used to the writing style, I mostly found Daniel Fox’sDragon 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…

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Daniel Fox is a pseudonym for an award-winning British
author of several novels including The Books of Outremer. He’s also written children’s books, poetry, plays, and hundreds of short stories.


Dave said...

Thanks for the review, Robert, this book is definitely on my radar! :-)

Robert said...

No problem Dave :) I enjoyed the novel immensely and hope you get a chance to read it...

SparklingBlue said...

I may have to see if it is availiable at my local bookshops--I know my sister would love it (she loves Asian culture)

Robert said...

Just remember that Dragon In Chains is not officially out until Tuesday, January 27 :) Hopefully they'll have copies! And if your sister is a fan of Asian-influenced fantasy,then I strongly recommend Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori if she hasn't read it yet...

Richard R. said...

Now it's March 31, 2010 and I'm wondering when the third book in the series might become available in trade paper?

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