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Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

Many moons ago, there was a girl group somewhat improbably called The Cookies — presumably, they were sweet things on the musical casting couch. Anyway, as is the way of pop culture, their brief reign over the charts bequeathed us “Chains”, a haunting song, penned by Goffin and King, and later covered by The Beatles, which boasts the immortal refrain,

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains

And they ain’t the kind that you can see.

Fast forward more than fifty years, and we find ourselves with the same leitmotif in the Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. In some systems of magic, there is an expectation that, if you know the true name of a thing, animal or person, you can command it. So it is with some ironic satisfaction that I confront a book about magic knowing that the real name of the pseudonymous author is Chaz Brenchley. He is currently a denizen of Newcastle which was the nearest city to where I lived in the earliest part of my life. At least he has the good sense to stay on the north bank of the Tyne — perhaps he has also had the good sense to read The Fire Worm, a book with autobiographical asides by author Ian Watson on life in Tynemouth, which deals with monstrous consequences to be found in the river dividing the true Geordies from the rest of England.

In this book, we are in the world of Chinese mythology. Yet again, the Son of Heaven (as Emperors liked to be known way back when) comes to the Imperial Throne under the regency of his mother and her flock of feuding generals. The book begins with the court in flight from a rebellion by a general who would not play the mother’s game, the young Emperor caught up in an undignified retreat to an island which is the principal source of jade. His arrival completely disrupts the life of the people whose main interests have lain in mining the jade and fishing. Those on the mainland have the worst of the bargain because the arrival of the pursuing army results in a mass slaughter among the coastal towns which involuntarily provided the men and boats to ferry the retreating imperial forces to the island. It is strange how often the lives of the innocent can be so rudely interrupted when their rulers fall out.

The book is therefore dealing with several well-worn themes. It’s a coming-of-age story for the young Emperor, the young woman he takes from the fishing fleet as his mistress, and a young jade miner who, like the Emperor, has had significant exposure to this stone for most of his life. It also reflects on the social and political forces that shape and constrain the lives of those both within the power structure and without. In theory, everyone including the Emperor is caught in cultural chains, restricting what they can do or the way in which they can do it. While under the sea, chained by sympathetic magic, a real dragon chafes against her intangible bonds and dreams of being free again.

At many levels, this is an unflinching story. It could have glossed over the casual brutality of life and death in early China, yet the author’s gaze is focussed on the use of power as a means of imposing order and discipline on the world. There would be no hegemony over the enormous land mass of China without an iron fist to hold its disparate parts together. There would be no crew of a ship without a captain unafraid to take a limb or the lives of those who offend him. Armies depend on a balance between loyalty and fear to maintain full ranks of motivated soldiers. Mothers need a ruthless streak in them to protect their children. Yet tip the balance too far and Emperors, captains and mothers may find themselves transformed from caring authority figures into monsters with no-one prepared to follow them. Balancing power and respect for, if not love of, others is a difficult art for all to learn.

The book (as the first in a trilogy called Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water) is also balancing social upheaval against the threatened upheaval of the dragon if she can free herself from the chains that bind her beneath the sea. This dragon is not some benign Westernised creature of Hollywood design, prepared to pull up a rock and chat amiably with a young hero in Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue. Rather it is a fierce creature waiting to savour a cold dish of revenge by laying waste to human settlements up and down her part of the coast, including the straits now separating the Son of Heaven from his pursuers. Indeed, as readers, we can ponder which would be worse for the local inhabitants: an army killing all in its path or a single dragon that can call up tsunamis or attack from the air.

All this is told in a most pleasing style. Too often magical fantasy descends into purple prose whose baroque extravagance weighs down threadbare plots. Here we have an intelligent plot with a restrained but evocative tone. The characterisation is allowed the time and space to give us a real insight into motivations. So long as we all suspend disbelief at the magic and forgive Mei Feng her unexpected sophistication as she rapidly changes from a deck hand on her grandfather’s boat to imperial mistress, this represents an auspicious start to the intended trilogy. I recommend it.

For the next volume in the trilogy, see Jade Man’s Skin. For the concluding volume, see Hidden Cities. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium.

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