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Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox

This is the second book in the trilogy Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water, behind the eyes of the characters introduced in Dragon in Chains by the pseudonymous Daniel Fox.

We wanted to see more of the same. We really did. But, as it turned out, there was a different path for them to follow.

The morning after the night before, as it were.

The results are just as good, but different.

Well, even in difference, there can be common themes.

I take the central concern of this second of a trilogy (Moshui: The Books of Stone and Water) to be captured in the elegant thought that,

“A city defended once can be defended again. Its reputation will speak through its stones; it has a memory of resistance, walls that say no, gates that refuse to yield.

A city that has fallen once will fall again. That is. . .inherent. Shame sinks to its foundations, weakness and loss and surrender lie like characters to be read in the very dust of its streets.”

We all struggle against the tendency of the world to label and, by that label, to define us. So, a city can be stereotyped by one loss to be a loser in all future conflicts. Passive people find such limitations comfortable. They never have to rise above the expectations of those who label them. But, for those more active personalities who have already set the bar high, it is easy to fail. So, where is the path to redemption?

Take a young Emperor as an example. He has fled across China and then across the sea to a craven last hiding place in the mountains of an island. This effectively demolishes all expectations of leadership. Indeed, his concubine may have risen to become an unexpected power behind what is left of the throne. Yet how can a girl who has grown up on a fishing boat expect to command loyalty and lead? Then there are the two generals who have come to radically different fortunes. One has been responsible for managing the retreat. The other is determined to confirm the legitimacy of his claim to the throne by eliminating the Emperor and all his family who might be a rallying point for future rebellion. It was all poised to reach the obvious conclusion with both generals conspiring to kill the Emperor. . .

. . and then everything was turned on its head by the release of the dragon.

What a magnificent beast, just as powerful underwater as in the air, commanding the elements with dramatic effect. It should be so easy for such a dominant creature, once free, to kill without limit.

Yet who or what is ever truly free? An animal, once chained, is forever enslaved! A city once defeated. . .

In Chinese philosophy, we have the notion of interdependence defined as yin and yang. Everything is opposites in a complementary relationship of balance. Think of the world as a meta-context. It begins as emptiness and then, as forces come into existence, there will be an ordering until the new environment is as calm as the previous emptiness. In a magic realm, a dragon would have to be balanced by a deity. Except, a dragon can emerge into the real world, so the deity must find human agents who can preserve the balance in both contexts. In the human realm, everything also has its own paired cycles. Generals will rise and fall in their fortunes. Even Emperors will find individuals who will balance and complete then.

So, in this second book, the cycle must turn again. The Emperor must come down from the mountain and lead again. Perhaps the courtesan’s path leads back to the boat she grew up on as her relationship with the Emperor may be in decline. Perhaps the generals will find the pursuer becomes the pursued.

So it is that the tone is different because we deal with the consequences of the first book, but it is the same because the equal and opposite qualities are complete in themselves.

This is a hugely enjoyable second outing, full of sharply economical writing and cleverly constructed character development. In tone, it starts off relatively subdued, but ends with muted triumph as character arcs, having diverged, converge to complete circles. Everything is now nicely poised for the final volume, Hidden Cities. Involuntarily, characters have been trapped or cajoled into living up to their labels. Now we have to see whether the Emperor really does have the intellect and emotional maturity to do more than lead from the front in a fight. Can he become the power in the land. While above him flies the dragon with the power to summon a typhoon to wash all life from the Emperor’s land. It is, as it should be, all left nicely balanced.

For the concluding volume, see Hidden Cities. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium.

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