This book. Is a masterpiece. Hands down some of the best fiction I’ve ever read in my life. JADE WAR is the second book in Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga, a family drama and gangland fantasy epic that began with Jade City. There’ll be no overt spoilers in this review, but if you haven’t read the first book yet it’s likely you’ll make some inferences that could spoil parts of it for you. If that’s the case, have a quick glance at my review of Jade City and go read it, cos these books are off-the-scale incredible.
JADE WAR picks up in the aftermath of the violent power struggle waged between No Peak and The Mountain Clan on the island of Kekon. But while the overt violence of the gang war might be on hold, the two clans exist in a state of fragile peace and continue attempts to outmanoeuvre each other, whether through geo-political alliances with foreign powers and powerful drug kingpins, or economically through the Kekon Jade Alliance and investment opportunities that could undermine their rivals. Where Jade City concentrated largely on the island of Kekon, and the city of Janloon in particular, the sequel expands the scope of the intricate world Fonda Lee has so expertly crafted. War is brewing abroad and foreign powers are once again setting their sights on Kekon as the only source of bioenergetic jade that could give them the edge in the inevitable conflict. And because the Kekonese Green Bone warriors are the only people capable of safely harnessing its power, a criminal empire has arisen to smuggle and distribute ‘shine’, a drug that enables foreigners to temporarily harness the power of jade without succumbing to The Itches. Lee takes this ammunition and uses it with devastating effect to build a living, breathing world with fully-functioning, integrated economies, politics and cultures that at once exist alongside and clash against each other in such dynamic ways I didn’t think possible in fiction.
But what truly makes JADE WAR shine is the characters. And this might sound counter-intuitive at first glance, but it’s honestly difficult to separate the world-building from the characterisation in these books. I listened to a great episode of The Fantasy Inn podcast recently, where authors K. S. Villoso (The Wolf of Oren-Yaro) and Tasha Suri (Empire of Sand) were talking about what makes great world-building. They made the wonderfully insightful point that the best world-building is entwined with characterisation and vice versa. In our own everyday lives, the people we become and the choices we make are affected in countless ways by the world we grow up and exist in. Culture; social relations; political beliefs. We make choices based on the interplay of all these things, and many more besides. What Fonda Lee has done is create a world where all this stuff is present and plays a visible part in moulding the characters, while at the same time, giving them more agency to affect the world around them through their choices and actions than I’ve seen in almost any book I’ve ever read.
Shae’s journey is particularly fascinating to me for this reason. She starts out in the first book as the black swan of the Kaul family, living abroad and denouncing her affiliation to the No Peak Clan. But the traditions and culture of her society force her to make a choice – to reject her rightful place in the clan and face being an outcast? Or take up the mantle and embrace the role her society expects her to fulfil? Both choices involve major consequences and in JADE WAR we see the logical trajectory of Shae’s choice play out and bear fruit with those consequences on full display.
And this is the truly wonderful thing about Fonda Lee’s writing. She gives her characters choices and agency and lets the consequences of those choices play out to their fullest conclusion. And not once does it feel like any of those choices are forced or exist merely to serve some plot point she wanted to arbitrarily hit. Lee knows her characters inside out and lets them play out their lives on her page. Every single character in this book is an individual, with their own unique relationships and expectations, wants and desires in life. They each come with their own strengths and insecurities that manifest in the most authentic ways imaginable and, as a result, make those gut-wrenching moments all the more heart-breaking for it.
Jade City was one of the best books I’d ever read, until I read JADE WAR. It goes beyond anything I could ever have expected from a sequel. I cried, I cheered and I stared, mouth wide open in amazement at the sheer genius of this book. And I mean all those things very literally. The brilliance of this book is beyond my ability to adequately put into words. Fonda Lee is one of the best writers alive and these books are ink and paper proof of that.
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