A great review for Hannu Rajaniemi’s THE QUANTUM THIEF in this weekend’s Telegraph. 

Rajaniemi has pulled off the elusive trick of making the utterly other seem completely plausible. A masterpiece of intricate, sustained imagining.

And for HIDDEN CITIES by ‘Daniel Fox’ in Realms of Fantasy.

With Hidden Cities (Del Rey, New York, trade paperback, 432 pp., $15.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-50303-9), Daniel Fox brings his Books of Stone and Water trilogy to a triumphant close-and leaves the door open for further adventures set in his alternate China and Taiwan.  Fox brings a distinct literary sensibility to his work.  His prose is leisurely, dense, mellifluous, lyrical; his method is to focus intently on one particular character at a time-over the course of the trilogy, the number of point-of-view characters has mushroomed-and then drill down deep into that character using exterior action as a springboard to interior examination.  Sometimes we are given the character’s thoughts directly, as in a stream-of-consciousness-type interior monologue, but more often we follow along as a discursive, allusive, analytic process plays out across the page, a process that may reflect the mazy movements of the character’s own reflections but seems more likely to be the unapologetic maundering intrusions of the omniscient narrator himself.  The benefit of this is that it gives readers extraordinary access to, and insight into, the various characters, and thematic links between them; the drawback is that at times it becomes smothering, and readers may yearn to escape from all this deeply self-conscious interiority into a little shallow action.  It would be easy to parody Fox’s style; and at times he comes close to it himself, writing as if his novel were not so much a collection of scenes as of character sketches strung together.  Nevertheless, he makes it work more often than not-all in all, it’s an impressive display of craftsmanship.  I mention this aspect of his work because I think whether or not readers respond to these novels depends to a significant degree on how they respond to his frankly mannered style.

A warning:  some spoilers necessarily follow.

Fox’s alternate world is an ancient China whose young emperor, Chien Hua, has been hounded from the mainland by the armies of a rebellious general, Tunghai Wai, and has taken refuge on Taiwan-here called Taishu.  Only two things prevent Tunghai from pursuing the emperor across the strait, both of which emerged in the previous novels in the trilogy, Dragon in Chains and Jade Man’s Skin:  these are, as you might expect, a great dragon, and, as you might not, an all-but-immaterial goddess.  The dragon and the goddess are ancient enemies; for time out of mind, the dragon was bound in mystical chains of iron and ink, and held in ensorcelled slumber beneath the waters of the strait by the magic of the goddess.  In Dragon in Chains, the dragon broke free and escaped to wreak his revenge upon anyone foolish  enough to sail the strait, whether fisherman or soldier or refugee.  

The goddess, though she cannot return him to captivity, does have the power to protect individual ships and people; she does this through flesh-and-blood vessels she temporarily possesses-without a human host, she is herself all but helpless in the material world.

What keeps the dragon from simply killing every human being not under the protection of the goddess-for she cannot be everywhere-is a young boy named Han.  Han, very much against his will, has had inscribed upon his skin mystical tattoos that bind him to the dragon and allow him to influence its behavior to a degree.  The boy cannot be free of the dragon; the dragon cannot be free of the boy-though he strives mightily to throw him off, metaphorically speaking.  And not so metaphorically, for the boy has learned to ride the dragon.

Meanwhile, dragon and goddess are not the only sources of supernatural power in this world.  The mineral of jade has extraordinary powers  that it confers slowly upon humans through prolonged exposure.   Traditionally, only the emperor has enjoyed the great strength, speed, and ironlike skin that comes from prolonged exposure.  It has made Chien literally superhuman-though for all his exterior hardness of body, his soul remains innocent, even naïve:  he is no match for his wily enemies, or his even more wily mother, the dowager empress.  But recently, a peasant jade carver from the mountains, Yu Shan, has manifested similar abilities to those of the emperor.  Rather than being killed for the crime of lèse majesté, Yu has been accorded the rare privilege of friendship with the emperor, who seems to see him as a kind of brother.  Some traditionalists, such as the dowager empress, look askance at this highly inappropriate friendship.

But that is nothing compared to how they look at his relationship with Mei Feng, a young fisher girl whom Chien takes as his concubine and who becomes pregnant with his first child.  Mei is a down-to-earth girl, a salutary influence upon the young emperor-but she is sophisticated enough to know that there are those who mean her and the emperor harm.  Enemies closer than Tunghai Wai.  When the emperor’s forces retake the mainland city of Santung, one of these enemies, Ping Wen, is dispatched to be its governor-the idea being that he can get up to less mischief on the far side of the strait.

Ping Wen, however, is a wily survivor of just such courtly  machinations, and is not prepared to accept his exile so meekly.   Santung has the reputation of being easy to take yet impossible to hold; already, it seems, the forces of Tunghai, so recently expelled, thanks in no small part to the vengeance of the dragon, are regrouping  to counterattack.  Now Ping pursues a two-fold strategy to survive:  

he will strike with the weapons of a new technology against both Tunghai and the dragon; and he will use the power of the goddess, and of a magic as ancient and more mysterious, to return the dragon to its prison beneath the waves.  Then he will turn his attention to Taishu and the imperial annoyance waiting there.  Such is the climax toward which the characters of this gripping novel, human and otherwise, are inexorably drawn.

The above gives only the merest taste of the layers upon layers of intrigue and densely woven, emotionally fraught relationships with which Fox complicates-if not overcomplicates-his plot.  What cuts through all these accumulated complications, and the at-times annoying self-absorption of his characters, is Fox’s brilliant evocation of his imagined world.  In a weird way, the dragon, the jade, the goddess-all of these finely wrought details are beside the point; they are meaningful to the plot, yes, but Fox’s achievement here does not rest upon them or upon any other magic beyond the ordinary kind that is to be found in the masterful manipulation of words.

And here is a  terrific review of Philip Palmer’s VERSION 43 from Locus.

• March 14th, 2011 • Posted in News