Fonda Lee’s debut Zeroboxer, a YA science fiction novel, met with no small acclaim on its publication. Now she’s back, this time with Jade City, a richly detailed novel firmly directed towards a non-YA fantasy readership. (I can’t say “adult fantasy.” That would carry certain inaccurate connotations. This is as frustrating as it is amusing.)
Jade City is a mob novel, set in a world where jade enhances warriors’ senses and fighting abilities—at least, for those who aren’t either immune to jade’s properties, or are so sensitive that jade drives them mad or kills them. On the island nation of Kekon, a generation ago jade-wielding warriors known as Green Bones defended their people against foreign invaders, but as the tide of peace and progress has marched on, now the most prominent clans—descendants of war heroes—are more concerned with defending their profits. The world is changing, and the jade export business is booming, as foreign militaries seek ways to harness the power of jade. The addictive drug known as shine can counteract the worst problems of jade sensitivity, but it comes with its own issues, not least of which are health-related.
Jade City focuses on the adult children of the No Peak clan, one of the two largest clans in Kekon’s bustling capital city. No Peak are being targeted for takeover by the other largest clan, the Mountain clan, whose ruthless Pillar (leader) has a vision for the future of Kekon and Kekonese jade that breaks with some of the traditions of the past. Kaul Lan, the Pillar of No Peak, is a sensitive and compassionate leader, whose aging and bitter war-hero grandfather recently stood aside so that he could inherit the role.
Lan isn’t suited for the role of a wartime Pillar, and that’s what the conflict will become: a war fought in the streets and in boardrooms over loyalty and patronage and cold hard cash. His charismatic younger brother Kaul Hilo is the clan’s Horn, leader of its street fighters, its Fists and Fingers, a competitive and aggressive young man who believes strongly in family and tradition, and who is in love with a stone-blind (immune to jade) woman from an unlucky family. The youngest sibling, their sister Kaul Shae, has only just returned to Kekon after two years abroad: she left her family and her jade behind for a relationship with an Espenian military officer and an education in the Republic of Espenia. She is determined to make her own way, to wear no jade, and to not use her family’s connections to forge her career. (Her feelings towards her family are rather ambivalent, and justly so, considering how they reacted to her relationship with a foreigner.) And their adopted cousin, adolescent Anden Emery, is a student at the Kaul Du Academy, in training to learn how to wield jade. He feels keenly that he’s an outsider: half-foreign, with a mother both incredibly powerful and so sensitive to jade that she eventually died of the reaction known as the “Itches,” adopted into the Kaul family but not really feeling as though he’s one of them, and queer in a society where same-gender attraction is seen as unlucky. The circumstances that they each find themselves in put them under incredible pressure. They’re caught by conflicting imperatives: tradition, duty, honour, family, reputation, and personal inclination all at different times pull them in different directions.
Stylistically, Jade City feels as though it mixes The Legend of Korra with Gangs of New York and a generous helping of Hong Kong action cinema. Lee builds a vivid, densely believable world, and a vivid, densely believable city: Kekon’s cars and televisions, its economic boom and history of conflict, exist in productive tension with its traditions and its clans, its jade and the code known as aisho, its gambling dens and restaurants and boardrooms. A deep attention to detail gives us a view of a society—and people within that society—not all quite yet at home with the changes that have occurred. Shae and Wen, Hilo’s lover, let us see that despite some changes, patriarchal ways of thinking (and hypocrisy) have a deep hold on Kekonese life and on No Peak clan, but we also see that a great deal of change has occurred since their grandfather’s heyday. Lee’s characters are vibrantly human, who have the virtues of their flaws, and the flaws of their virtues.
Excellently-paced and brilliantly constructed, Jade City glitters with life. It’s immensely compelling—and very satisfying as a mob narrative—and I really hope Fonda Lee writes more in this world.
Jade City is available from Orbit.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.