Title: Jade City (The Green Bone Saga 1)
Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: November 7th, 2017
Genre(s): Fantasy, Crime
Page Count: 512
Jade City is Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut and it is an absolute firecracker–a brutal tale of two warring families set in a rich, vivid world that teeters between modernity and tradition. Its first chapter is the perfect sampler of what you can expect from the rest of the book: intriguing worldbuilding, a dynamic magic system, vivid descriptions of settings, snappy action scenes, and interesting, cutthroat characters. And the best part? It’s all so gloriously, unabashedly, Asian.
Kekon is a small island country reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Shaped vaguely like a reptilian embryo, it should win awards for the being the cutest-shaped landmass in the history of fantasy cartography. But, in the story, Kekon is far more notable for being the world’s only source of bioluminscent jade. Only those of Kekonese lineage can harness the jade’s powers to augment existing abilities–speed, strength, and senses–to superhuman levels. Such individuals are known as “Green Bones.” Two powerhouse Green Bone families effectively rule Kekon: the Kauls of No Peak and Ayts of the Mountain clan. The former controls the eastern half of Janloon, Kekon’s capital city, and the latter controls the western half. But pre-existing tensions between the clans have boiled over into hostility, and now it’s an all-out war. To the victor goes the honour, the jade, and control of the country.
There are two things that make Jade City exceptional: worldbuilding and family dynamics.
I’m going to wax poetic about the way Fonda Lee constructed Kekon for the rest of the year, because it’s just so damn good and had me clenching my fist and hissing “yes!” in public like a crazy person. My problem with a lot of fantasy stories is that their worldbuilding feels separate from their magic system. Like you could swap out one magic system from one book with another and there would be very little difference to the world. Such systems tend to feel video gamey–contrived and artificial, regardless of how cool or complex they are.
In Jade City, the world is molded around the magic system–which makes the former feel much more natural and real. Jade isn’t just a magical object, it’s a national symbol that influences every aspect of Kekonese society–commerce, trade, governance, education, religion. Consequently, the powers of the Green Bones don’t feel like magic, but a discipline that’s just common to Kekon.
Moreover, I loved how textured Janloon is. It’s not just a cardboard stage for the characters to play around in, but a character that’s well alive and breathing. And it’s all thanks to small details. Like relayball, a high-intensity sport that is particular to Kekon. Like the various festivals that are held throughout the year, and descriptions of cuisines served at a local favourite restaurant (I had a serious hankering for crispy squid when I finished). Like ordinary middle-aged locals drinking and playing cards in the comfort of their homes. And Kekonese slangs (“You cut?”) and expressions that revolve around jade.
A person hoping for too much good fortune might be warned, “Don’t ask for gold and jade.” A child who demanded a custard tart after already having had a sweet bun was, Lan knew from personal experience, likely to be scolded, “You want gold and jade together!”
Even when the plot’s not moving forward, the world of Janloon is so constantly dynamic and interesting that you hardly notice. It’s a city that you want to get lost in and Fonda Lee has you begging to see more of it.
The story is mostly told from the Kaul family’s point of view. We have Lan, the eldest of the Kaul progeny and the newly-appointed leader of No Peak clan. A leader who is sick of his own advisor questioning his decisions and weary of his younger brother courting trouble with the Mountain clan. We explore through Lan’s eyes the burden of leadership and duty. In a city where public image is everything, he struggles to maintain a confident exterior while battling inner demons. It’s compelling and stressful stuff and I loved every bit of it.
Then there’s Hilo, the middle child and the military arm of the clan. Easygoing and quick to laugh but also quick to anger, he’s the polar opposite of Lan. In the beginning, I felt that Hilo was a fun character but one without much depth. But as the story went on, I saw that there was more to him than meets the eye and he soon catapulted over Lan as my favourite. It’s his passion that got me. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve without shame or fear. How he feels everything with so much intensity. And the fact that he so loves his family and yet is looked down on by most of them. Labelled a volatile thug, overlooked by his mother, and despised by his grandfather, he’s the ultimate underdog. And I do so love those.
“You give a man something to live up to, you tell him he can be more than he is now, more than other people think he’ll ever be, and he’ll try his godsdamned best to make it true.”
Then we have Shae, who’s returned from studying abroad in Espenia (the U.S. equivalent in this world) and is determined to make a living for herself without the help of the Kaul name. And Anden, who, at the age of eighteen, is the youngest (adopted) member of the family. Anden is a quiet, talented young man, who also happens to be gay. I found the way the Kekonese view queerness interesting and different from the attitude found in most fantasy worlds, in that it’s viewed not as a malignancy, but as a kind of an acceptable misfortune.
They are, each and every one, complex people trying to balance family and self-interest in a city that’s gone to hell.
Even discounting the fantastic worldbuilding, the palpable love and bond within the Kaul family makes this an incredibly engaging story. Because at its core, this book isn’t about gangs or magical jade. It’s about family. Asian families, in particular. About the bond that ties each and every member together with a strength that never wanes whether we’re five or five thousand miles apart. There’s something almost frenetic about it–a sense that we are but individual parts of the same whole or, indeed, a clan. That’s why I used to be so confused when I heard North Americans equating family gatherings during holidays to getting their teeth pulled out. Because, for me, such gatherings had held a feeling of rightness to them. A feeling of harmony and completion. And no matter the disagreements, we’ll always come together in the end. Because family is everything.
Until Jade City, I’d never read a fantasy book that captures this dynamic, so a massive thank you to Fonda Lee for that.
This book does its damned best to fill the Gentleman Bastards-shaped hole left in my heart and it feels like just the tip of a very large, very bloody iceberg. The war’s only just begun and I can’t wait to see where things go from here.