Fonda Lee brings her experience with martial arts to Jade City (2017), her first novel for adults and a sprawling tale of family, power, and an intangible but all-too-important element: control. Whether it concerns finances, emotions, or a person’s mobility through the world and their social station, control is at the heart of this novel, and informs every single moment.
Jade City is chiefly concerned with the Kaul clan of No Peak: adult siblings Lan, Hilo, and Shae, who were all trained up from childhood to eventually assume the top three positions of power within the clan. Lan is the Pillar, the leader everyone looks to for instructions and guidance, though he struggles against his grandfather’s living legacy; Hilo is the Horn, maintaining the clan’s power and strength by defending territorial boundaries and enforcing justice or honor; Shae was intended to be the Weather Man, assisting in all business matters, but fell in love with a foreigner and has lived abroad for quite some time before returning to Kekon right around the same time that her clan and family need her the most. There’s also Emery Anden, a young Kaul cousin in his last year of training at Kaul Du Academy, where adolescents learn martial arts and determine their jade-enhanced proficiencies. Each one of the Kauls will face challenges to their loyalty and lives as politics, business, greed, and blood become inextricably entwined.
It’s all fascinating, not least of which because the island nation of Kekon and its capital city, Janloon — commonly referred to as Jade City — are richly imagined, covering every aspect of life from restaurants and education to bustling trade in legal and illegal goods. Kekon’s pride and primary source of wealth is jade, all of which is unique and some of which is bioreactive, granting the wearer boosts in physical or mental prowess. The more jade, the more powerful a person becomes, though there are tolerance limits and serious dangers if that limit is exceeded. Naturally, trade in such a magnificent product is very strictly monitored; equally naturally, there are people who want to have total control over the movement and profit of that jade. Two generations back, a war was fought to secure Kekon’s independence from the Empire of Shotar, and now the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those freedom fighters have brought Jade City to a simmering point as they squabble, scheme, and kill to secure control of the jade and the city itself.
On the other hand, the book can occasionally feel longer than it is. Lee’s methodical world-building sometimes gets too deep into the bricks-and-mortar of the city and its inhabitants, slowing down the plot at times when it desperately needs a jolt. The fight scenes are all well-written and easy to imagine, but the nonstop self-perpetuating cycle of violence and vendetta for real or imagined slights against honor became tiresome; the same goes for the deeply-entrenched chauvinism despite frequent mention that women are just as capable of wearing and earning jade as men are. I’m sure that both of these facets are meant to be frustrating, especially since the few female characters of note are cleverer and stronger than many of the men surrounding them, but are rarely given opportunities to be respected in leadership positions. Some events near the ending of Jade City point toward opportunities for subversion of that chauvinism, and I hope Lee continues pushing those characters in that direction, as well as providing opportunities to either evolve or damn themselves for the characters that only live for aggression.
When every character and plot detail could be consequential, Jade City requires a fair amount of patience and careful attention from the reader. Complex strategies and double- or triple-crosses, endless fights over a few kilometers of territory between rival gangs, combined with the shifting alliances between family members, with occasional interjections of a mythologized history and the dangers presented by factions within and without the city of Janloon: it’s preparation for what I imagine will be epic showdowns in future GREEN BONE SAGA novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Lee takes this series.
I’m in agreement with Jana about Jade City. I admired Fonda Lee’s carefully built world but found the “nonstop self-perpetuating cycle of violence and vendetta for real or imagined slights against honor” and the “deeply-entrenched chauvinism” (as Jana put it) to be off-putting. I kind of wanted them all to just die and let their system die with them. Like Jana, I’m hoping that Lee intends to overturn this society in the sequel, Jade War.