Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dragon in Chains

Birds of a feather: I'm going to take a bold stand here and say that we all love to love books. I imagine that most of us even love to find books we love reading. But it's a special occasion when we find the book that we -- by turns -- love and hate. You know the kind I'm talking about: the ones that nibble at our soul, picking away at sores, teasing at scabs. The ones that kidnap our attention while we're at work with odd little thoughts that send pings of panic rippling through our stomachs. The ones we can't put down even as we're muttering our disdain or irritation or discomfort.

Case in point: Partner-in-crime and team player at the Adventures in Writing blog, D.M. McReynolds (Dave to the blogging world), recommended that I pick up Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. I did. I jumped online & ordered it from Amazon. I trust him that much.

It was one of those books.

Dave was right. The language is delicate, like silvery fish darting through opaque waters, or glimmers of sunlight flashing white against clouds of silt sifting to the bottom of a bay. Even the texture of words hang heavy with meaning and scent and color and sound.

"Han saw that noose drawn tight, snaring his master's beard as it went, tugging the long hairs back beneath his chin so that he looked ridiculously unlike himself as he mouthed fish-like at air he couldn't reach, as his fingers scrabbled for a thong sunk too deep into his wattles" (6).

The rhythm, too, is lyrical, drawing you forward and inward -- at times rushing you headlong into a fight or a rape or an escape, at others slowing you down, allowing your fingers to caress the sleek brilliance of the emperor's jade or jar with the clunk of hammer against metal.

"The headache had ebbed but not departed altogether, it lay like a threat on his horizon; his skin was cold and sticky yet, he wanted to rub it. Actually, he wanted to rub jade-dust into it, but Guangli was watching him" (253).

Dragon in Chains is equal parts fragile spider web and crushing rock slide, however. The complete disregard for human life, for females, for personal freedom grates against my psyche, pulverizing hope or joy. This is not an indictment against the book or Fox or even the setting: I understand that his rendition is no doubt more realistic than not. But it's certainly not uplifting.

Perhaps it's because of Fox's adherence to cultural and historical "truths" that I find a few of the characters weak and uncompelling. Instead of focusing on one or two protagonists, fleshing them out, and following him or her through thick and thin, Fox details the adventures of five or six, sometimes minor characters. At times, I found myself thinking that I only cared about Han -- and sometimes Mei Feng. The others were a distraction, prompting me to set the book down.

But the language and imagery, sometimes disturbing but always haunting, drew me back. It was one of those books.


Charles Gramlich said...

Blood Meridian was such a book for me. Gorgeous langauge but too much of it without story.

Lady Glamis said...

It sounds lovely. Thanks for a great review!

valbrussell said...

'Fall On Your Knees' by Anne-Marie MacDonald affected me in the same way. This is where the writer merges with the message so eloquently they disappear and you are left alone on the landscape of the story. Chilling but the most potent art. Thanks Alex for another wonderful post. :)

Dave said...

Alex, thanks for the review!

I must admit that I jumped into this book with a rush of excitement.

Here's why: Fox has rhythm. His rhythm made my heart beat, made me hope I could find my rhythm again. I had lost my voice and wanted badly to find it.

Guess what? It worked!

Sorry to hear the ending is so depressing, especially since I'm in the hopeful parts where the young heroes seem to have the opportunity of a lifetime.

When I finish the book I will let you know what I think. I'll look forward to that conversation. Tragic endings are hard to write well.


Alex Moore said...

@Charles Gramlich: Have not read it -- but isn't that an interesting statement of yours? I am also wondering about the trend of some literary magazines accepting only those writers w/ "credentials" (ie MFAs)... what will be the unintended (or intended?) consequences?

@Lady Glamis: :) also -- thanks for the team blog plug. You are, as Anthony says, dipped in Awesomesauce!

@valbrussell: chilling, indeed. and there's this part of me that is slightly annoyed because there is a power or an attraction or something there... :) Glad to see you here!

@Dave: And I am hoping you'll review the book from a completely different angle...even with a different opinion! And you're right on: Fox's rhythm drew me in, kept me entranced and reading and hopeful.

It's not necessarily a tragic ending (tho certainly it leads into a sequel which promises great death & destruction), but rather that the carnage itself is depressing, the cold disregard for human worth... and my distaste for such is entirely a personal thing. You may find it glorious & uplifting simply because the youngsters were able to find more than their predestined lots in life. we'll see. hurry & finish it!