Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

7/10 I wish it had lived up to the text on the back cover.

I was disappointed in the novel Dragon in Chains. In this story, the mother and generals of the young emperor have forced him to flee his palace and he crosses the waters to the island of Taishu. While crossing, he purchases a fisherman's granddaughter, Mei Feng, to be his concubine (and she's not upset by that). Concurrently, a boy named Han, who has been sold after just “escaping” one form of drudgery to the pirate ship Shalla, is used in a raid on an important conclave/forge where a large slave is set free from huge chains. The slave acts as if this is the end of the world and takes Han as his new little slave (which everyone, including Han, seems okay with) and begins putting new chains on him. Back on Taishu, word spreads of the emperor's arrival and one of the clans sends their strong young lad Yu Shan off to give their prize find—a huge and lovely chunk of jade—directly to the emperor, cutting out the jade traders and carvers and whatnot that are supposed to get their fair share of the profits involved.

Thus everything is set in motion and all sorts of horror and blood and guts and raping and pillaging take place to show us what a horrible bunch of cretins the rebels are who are against the emperor. I should point out that Fox does a good job with description. The reader is left with no doubt that people are out for whatever they can get, except the main characters, who seem to be passively living among all the hate and evil and gore, expecting to get carved up at any time. This left me searching for a character to root for; and I found myself aching for the release of the dragon who caused a tsunami when she stirred beneath the waters, testing the strength of the chains she'd felt weaken. Ah, there's the plot. Sort of.

Even when Yu Shan (whom I didn't realize was going to end up as a main character) made a sudden turn from apathetic and passive to a superhero-like, jade-eating warrior fighting for his life and the lives of others that he suddenly seemed to love (although that might be too strong of a word to describe his feelings for Jaio or the emperor), I just couldn't bring myself to care whether people in the novel lived or died. Han seemed so sniveling and powerless throughout most of the novel that I was stunned when he seemed to profess (to himself) that he cared about a doctor's niece and her fate aboard the ship where he had merely passed his days in a sort of comatose existence since being sold to the captain and then passed off to one of the captain's conquests.

Does this review seem to ramble? That is the style of the novel. Fox rambled through the tales of several characters who didn't all meet up at the end, but whose lives (mostly) eventually proved entwined by the rising up of the enormous dragon who drowned or ate the rebels who would have made the story longer had they been allowed to land and confront the young emperor's army on the island of Taishu. (Although some rebels already had confronted the emperor in a scene that reminded me greatly of Yertle the Turtle—he was king of the mud, for mud was all he could see.)

Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend this book to anybody. I wish it had lived up to the text on the back cover. I was pleased with the fantasy element of jade imbuing power to one who carries/eats it, but I wish the story had included more of the dragon or a fantastic character I could have rooted forl. Now, to be fair, I want to say again that Fox did an excellent job with description, making scenes easy to visualize. He also used a very relaxed approach to grammar and structure, letting the reader see the language on the page in much the same way we tend to speak. It gave a conversational, easy tone to the novel.

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