Review: JADE WAR by Fonda Lee

Book Reviews

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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Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

Book Reviews

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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