Hidden Cities by Daniel Fox
The first two volumes in the trilogy, Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water, were impressive. Indeed, the quality of both the narrative and the writing were, if anything, improving as the story moved towards a climax so nicely poised. So there was a moment of trepidation as I picked up the final volume. Would Hidden Cities maintain the momentum? Could Daniel Fox weave all the hanging threads together just so and leave us all satisfied?
Let’s just cast a brief glance back at Jade Man’s Skin. In a way, that’s all about the big stuff of people going to war and a dragon bringing destruction from the skies. It reaches a high point and then, because of the typhoon, everything finds an unexpected point of balance. It’s yin and yang between the earth and the sea, between the warring forces and the dragon. It’s time to hunker down and wait for the rain to stop. Only then can you review where you are in the campaign and decide what to do next.
Except the moment you stop running after the enemy, all the details come back into focus. What do you do with all the wounded? Can you feed all the surviving troops? Can you defend the city you so recently captured? What about the people who’ve been caught up in all the fighting? Even more importantly, the personal relationships intrude. There’s no time to think of your wife or lover while you’re fighting. Survival is all in the moment. So when Emperor can sit down with Mei Feng, and Jiao can observe Yu Shan with Siew Ren, the realities of pregnancy and of lost love become all too clear. Such recognitions change people’s emotions, perhaps even reshape them as individuals. Later, Tien can meet up with Han, that’s when Han is not riding the dragon and talking with her, of course. And then there’s Ma Lin and her daughters who now find themselves in service to Li-Goddess. Yes, it’s always important that people talk to each other, and with their gods and monsters.
As an aside, we should note a more general point about war. From time to time, there have been real attempts at total victory. Think about the destruction of Carthage where not only did the Romans pull down the city, but also salted the earth so no-one could farm there for generations. But few military campaigners have gone beyond the literal decimation, i.e. a reduction in the opposing forces by ten percent. You always need a core of competent people to till the land and run a range of manufacturing and service industries. There always comes a point when stability is more important than the egos of the leaders who would prefer to fight on. Except fighting is addictive, just like hunting. Addicts do not stop voluntarily. So the people have to save themselves. There’s a tipping point when enough of the people grow tired and hungry, where they run away or resist the call of the generals to attack or defend. If there are not enough soldiers, this forces an accommodation. The fighting stops.
In Hidden Cities, our interest must spread beyond the human. Think about a tiger who has lost his mother, but may have found another to take her place. Think about a dragon who had an agreement with the people but was betrayed by an Emperor and chained. These animals have a right to be angry, but how do you negotiate with them? What might they want or desire as the price of peace? Perhaps they might answer the question through a lesson for all of us: that every creature comes to a better understanding of the world and universe around it by coming to a better understanding of itself. What will that introspection produce? Will it keep a dragon or even a jade tiger happy enough to coexist with the people around them? And what of Li-Goddess? She has the endless power of the sea but no dominion over the land. Can a being so powerful have any interest in the ordinary run of humans, particularly when the majority has grown lax in worshipping her?
Overall, this trilogy is rooted in Taoism, a belief system that aims to reconcile yin and yang whenever possible. This is action through inaction, a relativism of inherent flexibility. In nature, the reed bends before the wind and survives the typhoon. Scaled up, this is the way of the universe. Like water, it has a natural flow, finding a path of least resistance through the land. Our eyes may be caught by the excitement of rapids and waterfalls. Eddies and whirlpools may appear chaotic. But there’s always some level of order and purpose to the direction of the flow. It may only be gravity in untamed nature, but when humans organise, those who show the virtue of integrity will find a way through the chaos, identifying the potential harmonies and building on them to direct the flow. In Hidden Cities, it falls to the characters with humility, to those who are sufficiently self-sacrificing, to see a way of negotiating an accommodation between warring parties. Now it’s their turn gently to adjust the situations so that those with the trappings of power may see compromise as both achievable and desirable. And because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, this may involve betrayal of long-held beliefs as individuals take sides and push for peace. Surely, it’s worth sacrificing some of your principles if peace is the prize you seek.
In the end, perhaps some of the “traitors” must perish so that the innocent may survive. So where does this leave the people? Well, in the hidden cities, the next generation is waiting to be born. Before, during and after wars, relationships flourish. Soon wombs fill with new life, confirming the cycle of destruction and renewal — the persistence of life.
Although there are some alarums and excursions as generals try out new technology to attack the dragon while keeping old knowledge as Plan B to restore the chains, the overall tone of this concluding volume is deliberately muted. There has already been too much death. Despite some new military skirmishes, the final resolutions must ultimately depend on the people deciding what they want and who they should follow. Daniel Fox continues to produce some fine prose and, in the end, there is peace. Perhaps that’s as much as anyone ever deserves.
Overall, Hidden Cities is the final volume in one of the best trilogies of the last few years, providing thoughtful fantasy against a background of war. Unlike other fantasy authors who leave bodies littering the landscape, this is unflinching when it comes to describing the conflict, but then considers the aftermath with empathy and constructive compassion. In the Taoist sense of the words, Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water is a well-balanced trilogy. So don’t even think of picking this up as a stand-alone. You will not know who anyone is nor understand their motivations. This is a book best savoured after first devouring the first two.
Jacket artwork by Robert Hunt.