Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Fox’

Hidden Cities by Daniel Fox

Hidden Cities

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?

Chaz Brenchley being Daniel Fox in a thoughtfully minimalist way

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.

The first two books in the trilogy are Dragon in Chains and Jade Man’s Skin. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium

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.

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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