REVIEW: Jade City by Fonda Lee
Dear Fonda Lee,
Your adult fantasy novel, Jade City (the first book in your Green Bone Saga), has won both the World Fantasy and Aurora Awards for Best Novel, as well as being nominated for the Nebula and Locus Awards. Set on an island with some similarities to Hong Kong, called Kekon, in the thriving city of Janloon, it’s the story of a leading family of fighters and the community they protect.
The novel’s Asian-influenced world has a level of technology that corresponds to that of our mid-to-late twentieth century. There are cars and airplanes, telephones and phonographs, but no cell phones, iPods or computers.
Jade has magical properties here. It can bestow powerful abilities on the Kekonese. Only Kekonese are able to use jade in this way, and only when properly trained can they handle its abilities. To the Abukei, who also live on Kekon, jade is just a stone, while foreigners like the Shotarians and Espenians are too sensitive to jade to be able to control the abilities it gives them.
Some decades before the story begins, two men, Kaul Sen and Ayt Yu, led an insurgency against an invasion by the Shotarians. A schism ended Sen and Yu’s friendship after the war, and they set up separate clans, the No Peak clan and the Mountain clan. Each clan is comprised of a network of businesses that pay a tribute fee to the ruling family. The family in turn employs the clan’s jade warriors, to protect those businesses.
Kaul Sen is aging and sliding into dementia, and Ayt Yu has died. In the No Peak clan, the next generation must now assume the mantle of leadership. It’s a difficult time to do that, because Ayt Yu’s adopted daughter, Ayt Mada, has taken control of the opposing Mountain clan and she is ambitious and ruthless enough to have dominated or swallowed some of the smaller clans on the island and has now set her sights on conquering No Peak.
The new generation of No Peak’s Kaul family is comprised of the three Kaul siblings and their adopted cousin.
Kaul Lan, Kaul Sen’s eldest grandson, struggles to fill his legendary grandfather’s shoes as Pillar, or leader, of No Peak. Lan is a good Pillar, thoughtful, gentlemanly and caring, but most of the people in the clan still think of his war hero grandfather as their true leader. Lan must prove himself to them and maintain peace in the face of the Mountain clan’s increasing aggression.
In his personal life, Lan is recovering from a painful divorce. His ex-wife has left him for another man because she couldn’t handle his commitment to his all-consuming new role, and Lan is still torn up about that. He feels alone and isolated by his role, too.
Kaul Hilo, the second grandson and middle child, thrives in his role as the clan’s charismatic Horn, or head of security. Quick to anger but warm, Hilo loves and fights with all his heart and is deeply loyal to No Peak, to the men under him, and to his older brother.
Hilo’s right-and-left-hand men are the Maik brothers, who were outcasts before Hilo befriended them. Hilo is also deeply in love with their sister, Wen. He is determined to marry her despite her family’s low status and opposition from the clan’s traditionalists.
Kaul Shae, Kaul Sen’s youngest and most favored grandchild, was expected to eventually become the clan’s Weather Man, or business leader / strategic advisor to the Pillar, but she rebelled against these expectations and went so far as to date an Espenian, set aside her jade, and move to Espenia.
Shae has now returned to Kekon with a degree from an Espenian university. She would like nothing more than to separate herself from the family and become her own person, with a life and a job that has nothing to do with No Peak and its skirmishes. But even as she distances herself from the Kauls, Shae also yearns for their love and acceptance.
Anden is the Kauls’ teenage cousin. He is sensitive, gay (not a taboo on Kekon, but something that is viewed as bad luck) and introverted. Anden never knew his Espenian father but he was far closer to his warrior mother, and her death torments him. His mother died of the Itches; she killed herself to escape the torment of the condition, which afflicts the jade-sensitive.
Now that Anden is at No Peak’s academy, training to become a jade warrior, he is plagued by fears that he too could develop the Itches. He is the academy’s top student but his attraction to a sullen and occasionally mean fellow student is another complication in life.
Though the Kauls and the Ayts have been described as crime families, the Kauls are not exactly that. The main similarity is that businesses must pay them tribute. It’s very similar to a shakedown but it’s a legal practice on Kekon.
Ayt Mada, however, is breaking the law. Traditionally, the clans have guarded jade zealously, since the substance powers the amazing fighting abilities of their warriors. But the Espenians have recently formulated a drug, SN1 aka “Shine,” that allows the jade sensitive to tolerate jade enough to control it. Shine is illegal on Kekon, but Ayt has obtained the formula and is now trying to corner the market on jade as well.
The Mountain’s jade warriors are growing bolder and their attempted incursions into No Peak’s territory infuriate Hilo. Lan’s Weather Man, Doru, advises caution but Hilo presses for a greater show of strength. Lan is caught in the middle and has to negotiate both violence and political intrigue. He also worries about Shae’s safety. Living in the city anonymously, without the Kaul name to protect her, she is in particular danger.
When Anden is kidnapped by the Mountain, the situation escalates and Lan fears that clan war could break out. If it does, he may not be able to keep anyone in the clan safe.
Jade City has been called The Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and that description fits. The magical fight scenes are very much wuxia-inspired while there’s a distinct mafia story feel to the book.
I am a non-fan of mafia stories. I couldn’t stand The Sopranos, didn’t care for Goodfellas, and while I thought The Godfather was a surprisingly good movie, I don’t revere it, as many film buffs do. I also don’t enjoy most of today’s antihero television shows. Yet despite all this, I loved Jade City.
Why? Because here the characters were easier to relate to than the typical (often amoral) mob story protagonist. None of the Kauls were greedy or even ambitious; they’d all been born (or in Anden’s case, adopted) into their roles and had not chosen them. And all of them were pulled into the street war because of their duty to others and / or because they were on the side of their loved ones.
Then, too, none of them are fully confident of their abilities, yet at different points in the story, all of them rise to the occasion. They are distinct from each other but have that response in common.
My favorite of the characters was Lan. He was a lovely person—good-hearted and gentle, cast into a role that demanded that he make a show of strength. He did everything he could short of surrendering to minimize the possibility of a war.
Hilo was probably my second favorite. He loved to fight but his loyalty and heart were immense, and his love for Wen was another touch that made him sympathetic. Anden was also likeable, the most vulnerable and innocent of the four.
I had mixed feelings about Shae because in contrast to her brothers and cousin, she seemed less invested in the fate of Kekon and of her family members. I also didn’t understand why she thought she could get escape her position and identity as a Kaul. It was obvious from the beginning that people would always either defer to her or use her to their advantage because of it.
In addition to the four protagonists, there is one other important POV character in the story—Bero, a “street rat” with unusual luck. Bero isn’t remotely likeable (I wished his luck would turn for the worse on many an occasion) but he is understandable, and the way his fate intertwines with that of the Kauls was interesting and at times ironic.
Ayt Mada is a ruthless and intelligent villain. She has the strategic thinking of a chess master, and even though there is only one of her, she is a huge threat to the four Kauls. It’s fun to see a female villain portrayed in such a way, rather than as a femme fatale.
The worldbuilding here is fresh and different. Though there must be other such books, I have never before read a fantasy novel that was set in a world not that far back from our own in terms of technology level and social dynamics but was not an urban fantasy. The world is a fantastical one in the sense that the countries and other locations are made up.
Janloon, the city that serves as the story’s backdrop, is depicted in scenes that have a cinematic feel. There’s the training academy, a restaurant, a street festival, a temple and a genteel sex workers’ establishment and all of these are vividly described. And the portrayal of the jade-fueled martial arts fights is exciting and dynamic.
The book is strongest when focused on Kekon and Janloon. The far-off destinations of Espenia, Shotar, and Ygutan are sketched out at this point, but may be fleshed out more in the later books.
This the kind of novel where you can’t get too attached to the characters. If you’re a reader who can’t bear to have a character you care about die, stay away. I would not call the novel bleak, but it is violent and at times tragic. The street war with Ayt Mada, is, for all its glamour, a war with wartime consequences. It’s possible that before this trilogy is over, more of the characters will be sacrificed.
If you’re up for that kind of book, though, chances are that you’ll find Jade City satisfying. It’s fresh, creative, well-paced, well-plotted, and all-around terrific. A-.
P.S. Jade City is currently on sale for $2.99.