This gorgeously written book is the first part of a new fantasy trilogy which draws on medieval China for its inspiration. It’s an alternate universe China, of course, and one of the ways in which it’s alternate is that magic is real, if largely subtle. Subtle enough that some characters do not realise that the magic is there. Even the dragon of the title is a background menace in this first book, thought of as myth by the people who don’t live in her territory, although she’s a key part of one of the main plot threads.
That’s plot threads, plural. One of the joys of the book is that there are multiple plot threads, skillfully balanced by a writer who knows how to use them to create a complex story with several distinctive characters. All of these threads converge on Taishu, a remote island on the edge of empire. On the physical edge, at least. Taishu may seem remote and insignificant to most, but it is the source of the jade that underpins the power of the Jade Throne and the Emperor who sits on it. He who holds Taishu holds the empire, in a very real sense, and Taishu is about to become the centre of more than one conflict.
Scribe’s apprentice Han is enslaved by the raiding party of pirates who kill his master. They are not local men, and their leader Li Ton pays no heed to his frantic warnings against their next raid — upon a monastery whose monks’ magic keeps the chains bound tight about the dragon held under the sea. After all, everyone knows that dragons haven’t been seen for hundreds of years, if they were ever real in the first place. As Han and the monastery’s sole survivor fight to hold the bindings in place, the dragon senses freedom, and Han senses her.
Fishergirl Mei Feng finds her life changed one night, when her grandfather’s boat is commandeered by generals, by the emperor himself. The boy emperor is fleeing from a rebel army, his own loyal troops not enough to stand and fight, or so his mother and his generals say. They have one hope, to hold the Jade Throne and the jade mines that are the true source of imperial power. In the end the Hidden City is wherever the throne is, and so the Hidden City moves to a remote island, along with as much of the army as can find boats to cross the strait. But the Son of Heaven finds one unexpected resource on the fishing boat that carries him to safety — a local girl to be a friend his own age, someone who is loyal to him both as emperor and as lonely, isolated boy. And in particular, is loyal to him, not the mother and generals who see him as too young to be anything other than a figurehead.
The jade miners have heard that the emperor himself has come to their island, and what they hear is a chance to break free of the middlemen who offer them a pittance, a chance to take his jade to him themselves. It is his jade, they know that; but perhaps he will give them a better reward for their work in mining it than do the jademasters. And so one clan of miners breaks the law and sends one of their young men with the fabulous new piece they have unearthed. Yu Shan is prepared for bandits in the hills, but even so he has a more twisted path to the emperor’s notice than he imagines. For he is young and does not know the secret of the jade, why it is so tightly controlled.
These could all easily become a cliched story, but here they are in the hands of a master storyteller. Fox weaves them together to make a multi-layered story where subtle clues are laid well in advance, creating an “oh, of course!” as the hints finally slot together to make the full picture. It’s no surprise that this works so well, as “Daniel Fox” is the pseudonym of an award-winning writer with a depth of experience in both crime fiction and fantasy. The world he has created is strongly grounded in reality, but has magic added, and the consequences of that are woven into the world he shows, rather than the magic being thrown in with no thought for how it might affect things. This world and its characters are described in beautiful and beautifully controlled prose. The result is a richly detailed fantasy that explores new ground rather than treading well-worn paths.
Dragon in Chains is quite definitely the first part of a single story, but there is enough plot, and intermediate resolution of various plot threads, to make the book a satisfying read in its own right rather than merely a cliffhanger designed to get you to keep buying the series. This is a complex and enticing dark fantasy that is well worth the wait for the next part.