Book Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Green Bone Saga
Publisher: Orbit (November 7th 2017)
Length: 498 pages
I’m really kicking myself for having taken so long to pick up and read Jade City. But perhaps it is also a blessing in disguise, because the second book is out now, and this was definitely a story that made me want to pick up the sequel right away to see what happens next. A completely absorbing and compulsive read, Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut held me spellbound in its grip from the beginning pages to the very end.
Imagine The Godfather in an Asian-inspired fantasy setting, and you have a good starting point for the premise behind this novel. We are transported to the city of Janloon, controlled by two rival families—the Kauls of the No Peak Clan and the Ayts of the Mountain Clan. Our main characters are Lan, Hilo, and Shae, three Kaul siblings who have been raised from birth to be loyal to their blood and name, knowing that one day the heavy burden of the territorial conflict will fall to them. But there’s more to the issue than simply who can own the most property or buy the most loyalty; there is also the jade trade to consider, and whoever controls that will have a huge advantage, because magical jade and its ability-enhancing qualities is what makes this world go round.
And really, the world-building in this novel is nothing short of incredible. For instance, just take a look at the vast body of lore and magic systems built around jade. For Green Bone families, like the Kauls, jade is more than a valuable commodity, it is a way of life. Its magical properties allow those who can harness its powers to gain special abilities, increasing their battle prowess and fortitude. There is also a time-honored code of ritual surrounding how a Green Bone warrior can obtain jade, including earning it through study, inheriting it through a family member, or seizing it from an enemy after killing them in battle. The more of these precious stones a warrior wears, the more powerful they become, though too much jade can also be dangerous, its overwhelming effects breaking even the strongest minds. Green Bones must receive special training to fight effectively with jade, as well as to recognize the early symptoms of its negative effects. These secrets are jealously guarded, and as a resource, jade is also strictly controlled by the nation of Kekon, forbidden for use by foreigners. There are even some who are completely immune to jade so that it is impossible for them harness its powers, and these individuals are labeled as unfortunate and unlucky (even though there are plenty of useful jobs these “stone-eyes” can obtain while being highly paid for). A street rat named Bero gives us a glimpse into the black market, showing just how desperate some people can become in their attempt to get their hands on some jade.
But when a new drug emerges, said to allow anyone to wield jade, tensions in the war between No Peak and the Mountain are elevated to dangerous levels. Kaul Lan, the eldest son who has assumed the mantle of the Pillar following the retirement of his grandfather and death of his father, must now prepare to lead his family through violent times ahead. His hot-headed brother Hilo, the clan’s Horn and top enforcer, is standing strong behind him, ready to bring the fight to the Mountain. However, their sister Shae, recently returned from her self-imposed exile, has remained adamant about not being involved the family business even though she would be perfect as the clan’s advisor or Weather Man, especially now that the current one is suspected to be corrupt.
The character connections here, particularly the ones related to family, are delightfully complex and steeped in subtlety and meaning. These relationships are never explicated stated; instead, Lee weaves a cleverly nuanced narrative that shows rather than tells us where all these interactions and associations might be headed: Lan might be too soft-hearted to do what is necessary, Hilo too impulsive to know what is best for No Peak clan, Shae’s hesitancy makes her all but MIA. And meanwhile, in the Kaul-owned academy for Green Bone warriors, their young cousin and adopted brother Anden who is getting ready to graduate and earn his first jade provides another perspective. Technically an outsider, Anden is nevertheless well-loved and cherished. It’s becoming increasingly likely that his class would be graduating into an all-out war, and the time to pledge alliances is now, though Anden isn’t sure how he feels about his family’s mobster politics or the way jade can utterly destroy a mind.
Jade City starts off slow, but in spite of that, the story was never uninteresting or tedious. The novel drew me in by degrees, fascinating me with layer upon layer of world-building before kicking it into high gear once the No Peak/Mountain war heats up. I loved the themes of family, honor and loyalty. It’s also interesting to me how different members of the Kauls viewed the ancient ways of jade and blood, and for some, that may prove to be their undoing in these modern times, where martial tradition has given way to commercialism and profit. Lee’s well-rounded characters feel genuine as they react realistically and sympathetically to the pressures placed upon them. The result is a vibrant mob family drama with plenty of intrigue and action, which overall I found both entertaining and emotionally engaging.
Like I said, I can’t believe I waited so long to read this novel, which has become a new favorite. But at least now I have its sequel Jade War in hand, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon!