Dragon in Chains, by Daniel Fox (399 pages, Fantasy, 2009)
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Imperial China, Dragon in Chains tells a story of rebellion and magic, in which jade can transform mortal men into much more and a dragon lies (as the title implies) chained beneath the waters, waiting to break free and destroy the world.
Fox’s writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently – evocative, poetic, and spare. While this does serve to distance the reader slightly, the characters he creates are vivid enough to pull you in. Each struggles with immediate, personal concerns linked, if sometimes circuitously, to the larger unfolding drama of an empire at war with itself.
Rather than following a single protagonist (indeed, I’d be hard pressed to identify any one of the characters as the lead protag), Fox puts us in the heads of a large cast of colorful characters – most of them from the lowest levels of society: a slave, a pirate, an old fisherman and his granddaughter, and a jade miner’s son. Thrown into the mix is a boy-Emperor fleeing a rebellion and struggling to fulfill his potential. Fox does an excellent job of dramatizing war’s effect on both the powerful and powerless – and explores these concepts deeply and subtly.
Dragon in Chains is part of a projected trilogy (the second book is out now, the third will be released in a few weeks), and the ending does leave several large questions unanswered. However, it also ties up many smaller ones – no cliff-hangers here – and gives the portion of the story told in this first book a feeling of completeness.
This lovely fantasy really stands out, both for its less common and very well-drawn setting and for its complex, intriguing characters. Highly recommended!