Dragon in Chains is a stunning Oriental fantasy by Daniel Fox, which is the pen-name of the award-winning British writer Chaz Brenchley, known for the historical fantasy series The Books of Outremer. Dragon in Chains was conceived after a visit to Taiwan and both the story and world-building draws heavily on a vision of feudal China. It is the first installment in a trilogy called Moshui – the Books of Stone and Water, which shapes to be a wonderful epic of a world in turmoil, where revolution is ripping the social fabric of the empire apart and where the people of power, deep in political intrigues, remain blithely unaware of a more serious and sinister threat.
Deposed by a vicious, 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 would 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 and love and forge a common destiny from the ruins of an empire.
Dragon in Chains is a novel that has all the necessary elements for a traditional fantasy epic, but interestingly enough it is a narrative that quietly refuses to be epic in scope and style. This is partly due to the fact that the main POV’s belong to people who exist only at the periphery of the people of power who make things happen. There’s the fisherman Old Yen and his granddaughter Mei Feng, who is taken as a concubine and confidante of the young emperor – who in many respects is just as powerless as she is, imprisoned by court etiquette and rule by his mother and her generals. Then there’s the young jade miner Yu Shan who is sent to the emperor with the extraordinary stone of jade in a bid by the mining clans to wrest power and influence away from jade masters – a mission that fails when he is captured by bandits. Last and not least, there’s the young boy Han, a scribe’s assistant, who is taken as a slave by a pirate captain, maimed by him and then suddenly finding himself burdened with the terrible task of keeping the dragon subdued. All of these characters are to a large extent powerless and they are forced into positions and actions either by people stronger and more powerful or simply by circumstance.
Dragon in Chains is also written in a distinctive style that very effectively counteracts the epic scope that a story about an empire in revolt and a chained dragon might otherwise demand. Rather than painting his canvas with a broad brush, Daniel Fox appears to have taken a leaf out of the pages of modernist authors such as Virginia Wolf and James Joyce, adopting instead the stream-of-consciousness as a narrative device for a piece of fantasy fiction; something that is rarely seen in the genre, making Dragon in Chains very special indeed. Fox employs this device to represent the rhythms and cadences of the state of mind of the various characters, the surface patterns of their thoughts and impressions so to speak.
This technique lends a certain immediacy to the narrative but it also sets certain limitations on the various points of view, giving the story a somewhat fragmented impression – mostly because no one possesses the all-seeing perspective of an omni-present narrator, capable of laying out the epic scope of a story such as this. Instead, the perspective is intimate, submerging the reader in the immediacy of impressions and sensations, tracing the patterns of the characters’ thought and memories and sharing in their limited perspectives. It is a narrative style that lends the story a calm and almost meditative tone but it also creates a certain emotional distance to the characters since this impressionism very easily captures and tangles the reader into the patterns of thought and sensations of the characters and into the cadences of the prose.
The prose itself is extremely lovely, even lyrical in the representation of sight and sensation:
First was the perfume of the tea, he could simply sit here and sniff. That too was fragile and beautiful, floral and tender and unexpectedly refreshing. When at last he sipped, his mouth filled with an effusion of light and heat and water, the whole history of growth from the earth through root and branch to the budding leaf.
And so the bargaining began. Yu Shan tried to disappear back into his tea, into this unfolding of taste like a landscape, foreground and distance and hints of something far, far out of reach. He held worlds in his mouth, worlds unseen and truths unspoken.
The lyricism does not, however, preclude the horrific. Thus the novel gives the reader a terrifying glimpse of the fall and sacking of a city at the hands of the rebel forces, experienced through the eyes of a helpless family with the immediacy of terror, the effect even more chilling than usual since the depictions of the horrors contrast so violently with the loveliness of the prose.
Dragon in Chains is, quite simply put, an absolutely wonderful novel, elegant and richly textured, and whilst reading it I found myself doing something that I hardly ever do: I paced myself, reading slowly because I didn’t want it to end. When it did, I found that I was very well satisfied but hungry for more and I’m now highly anticipating the sequels Jade Man’s Skin and Hidden Cities, neither of which appears to have an official publishing date as of yet.
I found Dragon in Chains to be an exquisite and elegant piece of literary fantasy and must say that its rich texture of impressions and sensations ought to be savoured slowly, like a piece of high-quality dark chocolate – with leisure and delight. Without being too presumptuous I feel that Dragon in Chains should be counted as one of the best fantasies published this year and it should appeal to fans of Ursula le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Virginia Wolf. Very highly recommended.