Hidden Cities, by Daniel Fox. Del Rey, March 2011, $17.00, ISBN 9780345503039
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Hidden Cities concludes a trilogy which began with 2009’s Dragon in Chains and continued in last year’s Jade Man’s Skin.
Hidden Cities takes up mere hours after the end of Jade Man’s Skin. The boy-emperor has recaptured the coastal city of Santung from the general Tunghai Wang in the face of treachery and resistance; his concubine, the former fishergirl Mei Feng, is pregnant; the dragon of the straits is unbound and angry – half-bound to the boy Han, against both their wills, by characters tattooed on his skin.
The setting is richly-detailed, very Asian, feudal. As he has throughout the trilogy, between the war-torn city of Santung and the island of Taishu across the straits, Fox succeeds in creating an incredible sense of place, and populating it with many rich, believable characters. Perhaps too many: this is in no way a simple book, and every single character in its pages has his or her own dreams, hopes, desires, and strategies, from Mei Feng’s fisherman grandfather Old Yan, willing both to face a dragon and defy a god, to the priestess Ma Lin, who has buried one daughter and strives to protect the two left to her; and from Tien, a doctor who has twice betrayed Han in trying to bind the dragon and still cares for him, to the mercenary Jiao, a figure in this volume both vicious and tragic. Even the dragon, in her inexplicable, terrifying glory, has both dreams and desires, hard as they are to fathom.
In the first third of the book the profusion of complex, meaningful characters lends itself to confusion and to a little frustration. Despite Fox’s vivid, brilliant prose, the opening chapters feel a little like a collection of vignettes, until the underlying logic of his choices becomes clear.
The book’s central concern, if any one thing is central, is the dragon: the need to either bind her again, or to reach some accommodation with her, in order to cross the straits. The straits belong either to the dragon, or to the Li-Goddess, a competition over rights of possession that mirrors the struggle between Tunghai Wang and the emperor for Santung and for the empire.
This is a book about what is ruined, and what is left: about surviving war, betrayal, injury, life, and building anew. The ‘hidden cities’ of the title are, by implication, those things which are preserved and remade: the palace the emperor is building in the centre of Taishu, the dowager empress who preserved her emperor-son so that he could remake his empire, pregnant Mei Feng, the survivors of Santung, even, perhaps, the dragon herself.
In my opinion, this is an excellent book, an admirable conclusion to an admirable trilogy – one in which Fox’s love for things Chinese shines clearly through – and well worth reading.