Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

I don’t know what I expected before I started reading JADE CITY, but I absolutely did not expect a fantasy, Godfather-style gang war epic with bioenergetic, power-boosting jade stones! Throw in the fact it’s fantasy in a modern setting, with cars and guns, planes and international trade deals and Fonda Lee has laid the groundwork of a solid gold premise. But Fonda Lee went so far beyond this premise, she can’t even see the premise. The premise is a dot to her. Jade City is everything a novel needs to be bordering on a masterwork of fiction; incredibly deep world-building; a character-driven narrative and a buy-in so intense there were several times I literally shouted out loud into an empty room because I was so invested in the lives of these characters, and the often infuriating and dangerous decisions they made.

The fact I was so invested in the characters and rooted so hard for their success is a testament to Lee’s talent as a writer, because these characters aren’t exactly good people. Kaul Lanshinwan (Lan) is the Pillar of the No Peak clan, one of the most powerful of the clans that effectively rule the island of Kekon and it’s capital city, Janloon. Lan is the head of this mafia-style crime syndicate controlled by the Kaul family and his brother Kaul Hiloshudon (Hilo) is his enforcer. Hilo is the Horn of the No Peak clan, a brutal and gifted street fighter, whose job it is to lead the Fists and Fingers of No Peak, who are analogous to the Caporegimes and soldiers of the real-world mafia. Kaul Shaelinsan (Shae) is the black swan of the Kaul family, committed to pursuing a life outside the influence of her mafioso family, though she begins to find that path more and more difficult to tread as tensions with the rival Mountain clan begin to boil over into open conflict.

I loved all these anti-hero characters. It was fascinating to watch Lan struggle with the pressure of living in his grandfather’s shadow, the ageing Kaul Seningtun, the revered leader of Kekon’s national liberation struggle, now an old, bitter and increasingly senile man who never misses an opportunity to berate and criticise his grandchildren for what he perceives as their juvenile and misguided conflict with the Mountain clan.

With Shae, it was her conflicting commitments that drove much of the plot forward, but also her own character development stemmed directly from her inner turmoil and how she chose to deal with it. On one hand, she finds the activities of her family distasteful and corrupt, and wants to live an independent life free of their influence and the unfair advantage the Kaul family’s power would grant her. On the other hand, she finds herself increasingly drawn back into the family circle as her brothers become embroiled in a violent conflict that puts them in constant danger and suspicions of treachery within the inner circle of the clan becomes more prevalent.

Hilo was my favourite character though. As violent and hot-headed as he is, there’s no denying that’s what makes him an effective Horn and yet, as the story progressed, I loved watching how he was increasingly forced to deal with the complex politics of Janloon; from the necessity of engaging diplomatically with The Mountain, to navigating the corrupt politics of Kekon’s ruling council and keeping the civilian population and class of tribute-paying business owners known as the ‘lantern men’ loyal to No Peak in a situation that becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

On top of these three main characters are a host of other, nominally ‘side’ characters, but whose agency and actions often have profound impact on the direction of the plot. Kaul Seningtun, whose derisive attitude to his grandchildren affects how they respond to the unfolding world around them; the young criminal Bero, whose insatiable desire to make a name for himself leads to some of the most explosive events of the story; and Yun Dorupon, the Weatherman of the No Peak clan, whose loyalty to Kaul Sen and the old ways of doing business cause constant friction with Lan and Hilo, who represent the new world of modern Kekon.

It strikes me at this point that I’ve barely even mentioned what makes this book a fantasy novel, the mystical jade that is only found on Kekon and endows those that wear it with enhanced strength and speed, among other abilities. Again, it shows how great a writer Fonda Lee is that her story isn’t entirely reliant on any kind of fantasy gimmick that stands in for plot or character development. Jade is central to this story in that it’s the resource that made Kekon a target for imperialist nations, but was also the means by which the Green Bones genetically predisposed to successfully harness it’s power fought off the yoke of colonial occupation and established themselves as the island’s new ruling class. Now, a generation after the war of national liberation, a new war is being fought between rival factions for the control of the country’s jade supply, along with the wealth and power it bestows.

Finally I want to talk about the masterful world building in this book. I read somewhere that the experience of playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons engages the same parts of your brain involved in formulating memories, so the experiences you have at the table often feel just as real as stuff you did in real life. That’s what reading Jade City is like. Janloon honestly feels like a city I’ve actually visited, a place I could hop on a plane and fly back to, it felt so real. The culture and social practices of the Kekonese people is so fleshed out and detailed, right down to the most subtle and minute details.

In a culture where respect, honour and hierarchy is so deeply embedded, the Kekonese language has developed to reflect the importance of these values. The suffix ‘-jen’ is used to denote respect and deference to your social superiors and so Lan and Hilo are often referred to as ‘Lan-jen’ and ‘Hilo-jen’, and failure to use this form of address can indicate a lack of respect. Indeed, for Yun Dorupon there is only one ‘Kaul-jen’ and that is Kaul Seningtun. Doru often refuses to address Lan with the proper respect due to the Pillar and it’s such a subtle, yet powerful way of showing what he really thinks of Lan. There are numerous other ways Fonda Lee has developed to show social status and power dynamics in this world, such as when the leader of the Mountain clan, Ayt Mada, pours her own tea first, before her guest, sending an instant unspoken message that he is not a guest with enough status or due enough respect for her to honour in this way. It’s just brilliant and these details are what makes this story and this place and these people feel real in a way most stories don’t.

This has been one of my longer reviews but there’s just so much to love about JADE CITY I feel like it was warranted. Suffice to say I absolutely adored this book and I’m already itching to start the sequel.

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  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! You’re absolutely right, Kekon feels like a REAL place, a place with HISTORY. The backstory about the war and how it affected a generation and relations with other countries, it truly did feel like this was a place that existed. And Fonda Lee sowed all that in without it ever feeling like a dry info dump.

    Liked by 1 person

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