Jade City by Fonda Lee. ★★★★
I had a lot of fun with Jade City! The story starts off slow, but by the second half, I was having trouble putting it down.
Over twenty years ago, the island nation of Kekon won their freedom through the feats of the Green Bone warriors and their loyal Lantern Men. Now, Kekon is coming into the modern age, and the Green Bones have splintered into clans, of which the two largest and most powerful are led by the Kaul and Ayt families. While they do not hold official political power, the Kaul and Ayt families are the powers behind the throne in Kekon. When war threatens to break out between them, it will effect all of Kekon.
Jade City focuses on the Kaul family, which has recently passed the leadership over to the grandson of the freedom fighting patriarch, now an elderly and deteriorating man. The Kaul family consists of Lan, the new head of the family; Hilo, Lan’s brother who’s in charge of the military/street enforcers branch of the clan; Shae, their sister who left the family, determined to make her own way; and Anden, their school aged adopted brother. Like other Green Bone families, jade is paramount. Kekon’s jade has special properties that allow those who wear it to gain supernatural abilities, but it is also dangerous. Green Bones have special training and resistance that allows them to wear jade without being driven insane. How much jade you wear is a sign of how significant you are.
I really loved the world building of Jade City. It gives me two things I’m always looking for in fantasy novels: second world fantasy with modern technology and non-Western cultural influences. I’ve never read anything quite like it, although Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence probably comes the closest. The world Fonda Lee creates feels lived in and real. While the narrative focuses on Kekon, it’s easy to believe that an entire world expands out beyond the borders of the island.
If I had one wish, it’d be for more female POV characters. Kekon is a male dominated, macho culture. While women now enter academies to train to become Green Bones (a modern development) and there are no legal barriers to them holding leadership, the culture is still slanted towards male domination. I.e. it’s a lot like the world we live in with respect to gender norms. It was interesting to see how each of the five main POV characters (the Kaul family, plus a street rat named Bero) interact with their culture’s gender norms. Shae turns her back on her clan and Green Bone culture partly because she’s frustrated with it’s obsession with male honor and how women are sidelined. While Lan is the leader of the clan, he sometimes departs from what is expected of him as a Green Bone patriarch; for instance, it’s considered unusual that he didn’t have his ex-wife’s lover killed and instead let the two of them leave Kekon. Andan is a bit of an outsider, as a mix raced, queer teenager. He struggles to be accepted in a society prejudiced against him (queer people are considered unlucky, and anyone mixed race is considered foreign, even if they were born and raised in Kekon like Andan). Hilo is the character who most embodies Kekon’s standards of toxic masculinity (he cannot understand why Lan wouldn’t let him kill the ex-wife’s lover), and Bero idealizes that sort of masculinity and is determined to gain jade of his own. Perhaps this is why I never much cared for Hilo or Bero.
Fonda Lee has martial arts training, and it shows in the exquisite, jade-powered fight scenes of Jade City. As I mentioned at the beginning, the first third is a bit slow to take off, but once Jade City picked up steam it was unstoppable. I found myself reading even when I’d been planning on doing other things.
This story of magic-fueled, mobster politics was a sheer delight. I’m excited to read a sequel, and I may look into Fonda Lee’s back list in the meantime.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.