I have extremely mixed feelings about Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains, the first book of a fantasy trilogy. A teenaged emperor flees from a rebel army all the way to an island at the edge of his empire. However, the island is the source of the empire’s jade and thus vital to control of the empire. Meanwhile, a dragon lies chained under the straits separating the mainland from the island—but her chains have been broken and only hastily and weakly reforged.
On one hand, I found the book’s prose lovely, much more distinctive than many books I enjoy. (An excerpt is on the author’s website.) The prose, situations, and many of the characters kept me reading steadily, to the point that, three-quarters of the way through, something happened and I said, “Oh! There’s the plot!”—but I hadn’t missed it until then. And it’s nice to have something other than a bog-standard medievaloid European world.
On the other, the author is a British writer who fell in love with Taiwan and wanted to write about Taiwan’s history and relationship with the People’s Republic of China, except with empires and magic (see this interview). First, this immediately raises questions of cultural appropriation in my mind, and I just don’t know enough about Chinese culture generally or Taiwan specifically to spot anything subtly problematic. I do think that there’s a good range of characters and a distinct lack of outside saviors; the portrayal of the dragon strikes me as possibly unusual for Chinese-derived mythologies, but there may be more about her in the next books that would clarify.
Second, my first reaction to the story, prior to knowing the author’s inspiration, was that the political aspects were disappointingly black-and-white. The emperor is benevolent and tolerates a great deal from his peasant concubine, while the rebel leader is mustache-twirlingly ruthless; I felt that they collectively were the least nuanced characters in the book and drained the overall plot of complexity. Now I’m wondering if I was supposed to bring real-world politics into the story and view it through that lens, and indeed if the story only works for readers who do that.
Another issue I had is that there are at least three major relationships where one person had no choice about entering into the relationship. Two of these are sexual, and all of them, to me, display varying degrees of Stockholm syndrome—which I don’t feel the narrative presents as being as much of a problem as I consider it. Again, this may be resolved by later books, but I don’t know how much trust to place in this new-to-me author.
Finally, there are several points at which the trilogy-opening nature of the book is quite apparent. There’s one excellent sequence of a woman trying to get her family out of a city that’s being overrun by soldiers, which I found hard to look away from and harder to shake mentally, and which then more-or-less vanishes in what I hope is a “watch this space for the sequel” kind of way. The book also ends by wrapping one arc and diving headlong into another. Your tolerance for this kind of thing may vary.
So, like I said, very mixed feelings. There’s much that’s good about this book, and there’s much that could be good or could be awful, depending. I guess I’ll just have to see what my tolerance for risk is like when the sequel is published, or maybe just wait for the whole thing to be done and decide then.