Warning: Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the previous 2 books!
She was written on his skin, in some spell-crafted liquor more potent than mere ink.
The third book in Fox’s Moshui series, Hidden Cities is the conclusion of a strong, quiet epic. There’s war and intrigue aplenty, yet ‘quiet’ really is the word that comes to mind for it. Set in a distinctly Asian world, richly and lovingly described, Hidden Cities wraps up the struggle between the Dragon and the Li-Goddess, told through the eyes of the humans caught between the two.
The dragon has been freed from her chains, but chained to the mortal boy Han…by the woman Han loved. They must learn to live with each other, two alien minds, one too vast and one too small for comfort.
Concubine and fisherman’s daugher Mei Feng finally carries the child of Emperor Chien Hua: his first, their hope for the future. Chien Hua is a jade-eater, impervious to bodily harm but young and uncertain against much older and wiser enemies, completely in love with Mei Feng. But his jade-infused blood is in their child as well, and Mei Feng does not have that inhuman strength.
But it is the tangled loves and hurts of the common folk who will shape the future of a kingdom at war with itself–and with two inhuman, godly powers. Jiao, the pirate; Tien, the woman who dares to do a man’s job; Biao, the charlatan; Old Yen, a fisherman forced to reassess his faith; Ma Lin and Shola and Jin, their lives ruled by the Li-Goddess; a host of others with their little worries and hopes.
There’s an integrity and realism to this story that too much epic fantasy misses. The fantastic is subtle, mythical: a goddess who needs a human mouth, a dragon hurt by betrayal, jade-eating tigers and emperors. The relationships are so very fallible and human, full of betrayals and disappointments and small triumphs.
Although the sheer number of names can be hard to keep straight at first, Fox does a fantastic job of following this huge cast through the subtleties of their lives. The depth and detail of the setting carry the characters and story very well without resorting to info-dumps.
The ending however, poses several revelations that simply give rise to more questions, and seems to be opening the door for another series. If it is anything like this one, I’ll be putting it high on my wish-list.