I immensely enjoyed Fonda Lee’s gangster fantasy novel, Jade City, which will be released November 7th, 2017. In the meantime, enjoy this interview with Fonda Lee!
Can you tell us a bit about your new fantasy novel, Jade City?
Jade City is a gangster fantasy saga that’s been described as “The Godfather with magic and kung fu.” It’s set in a modern, Asia-inspired metropolis with rival, magic jade-wielding clans. It revolves around a group of siblings—the Kauls—and at its core, it’s about family, and Family, about duty and ambition, tradition and modernity—all driven by tense political intrigue and a lot of magic-fueled martial arts fight scenes.
You’ve previously written young adult science fiction, but Jade City is your first adult fantasy novel. What was it like making the switch from YA to adult and from science fiction to fantasy?
To be honest, I didn’t find the switch from YA to adult difficult at all; if anything, I felt as if I was writing in my more natural voice. My young adult novels veer toward the more mature side; I think my debut, Zeroboxer, could’ve have been an adult novel except that the protagonist is a teen and the book sold to a YA publisher. I’m very glad I got my start writing YA however because I learned to write tight, contained, fast-paced single POV novels before tackling an ambitious multiple-POV monster like Jade City. Those narrative skills served me well when it came to keeping a potentially sprawling project on track and focused on the main characters. I couldn’t have written Jade City five years ago.
As for moving from science fiction to fantasy—to me, it’s all about creating a believable world. I want the fantastical elements to blend seamlessly into the fabric of the society and the culture and the lives of the characters—and that task is the same regardless of whether I’m introducing futuristic technology or magic.
Did your martial arts training influence Jade City at all?
Yes, absolutely; in fact, part of the premise of Jade City came about because I’m both a martial artist and a big fan of martial arts movies. In kung fu movies, the fighters fly, they punch through walls, they use their super strong chi to fling opponents across a room with a single blow. I’ve been training in martial arts for fifteen years and trust me, I can’t do any of that, and as accomplished as my most senior instructors are, they can’t do that either! It’s martial arts fantasy. But how awesome would it be to create an entire world and magic system in which there was a way to achieve those kinds of abilities?
On a more tactical level, I drew upon my training to block out and write almost all the fight scenes in the book. Adding in magic jade-fueled powers, of course.
I loved that Jade City is a second-world fantasy that resembles our own modern world, with cars, televisions, and other such technology. Would you classify it as urban fantasy or something else altogether?
Jade City has elements of both epic fantasy and urban fantasy, but I’m not a big fan of categories; I do think it’s something else altogether. That trips some people up. I’ve seen a couple reviews that took issue with the fact that there was both magic and modern technology, yet it’s not set in our current day world (no cell phones, Internet, etc); some readers saw that as anachronistic. Which strikes me as odd because I built Kekon as a secondary world with a clear historical analog: Asia in the late twentieth century, specifically the period of rapid economic growth from the 1960s-80s. (In fact, I took partial inspiration from the history of Asian island nations including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Okinawa.) Readers are conditioned to think that magic can exist in medieval history or in modern day Chicago, but they aren’t accustomed to secondary worlds with cars and cassette tapes. So, I’m glad to hear that it worked for you!
One of the elements I found most interesting about Jade City is how the Green Bones and Kekonese culture in general has a lot of machismo and the women who want to make it as a Green Bone have to work twice as hard. Can you talk some about that?
Yes, it’s pretty much exactly like our own world, isn’t it? I was a business major and worked in corporate finance in my previous career; the dynamic is the same. As it is in many male-dominated fields such as the military, engineering, gaming, and so on.
Gangster stories are invariably stories about the power struggles of men. Consider classics such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface—the female characters are largely passive, sidelined, or victimized. You have to look to the turn of the 21st century and Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos to find a mob wife who breaks the mold by having a nuanced and central place in the story.
The truth is that while war and violence naturally lend themselves to a predominantly male narrative, women are not absent, and in fact, sometimes have pivotal roles. There are numerous real life accounts of this. One of the most feared Irish gangsters in New York’s Five Points district in the 1840s-50s was “Hell Cat Maggie” who filed her teeth to points and wore brass fingernails into battle. In 1984, a woman named Fumiko Taoka took over the leadership of the Yamaguchi-guma, the largest Yakuza organization in Japan, after her husband’s death. In Naples, there are a growing number of female Mafioso in positions of power. For more examples, there’s this article and this list.
To me, there are two equally wrong-headed extremes when it comes to portraying women in a testosterone-dominated culture, fictional or not. One is to ignore or marginalize them completely. The other is to pretend that there is no systemic prejudice and to make them every bit as prevalent and accepted as the men. Both are unrealistic. That’s something I’m fanatical about when it comes to my secondary worlds—I want them feel absolutely real. One of the things I very much wanted to accomplish in Jade City was to depict a society and a culture being altered, sometimes painfully, by the march of modernity, and the changing role of women is part of that. For example, there’s a stark contrast between one of the main characters, Shae, and her mother, who is a far more willingly ignorant “mob wife.” There are powerful female characters in Jade City, but like in our own world, they are outnumbered and they walk a difficult path.
Jade City contains a number of different perspective charcters. Did you have a particular favorite to write?
Are you asking me who my favorite child is? 🙂
Seriously, though, this is a hard question to answer because I care about all my main POV characters—after all, I had to spend so much time with them! Whenever I felt I might be favoring one over the others, or finding one of them more compelling, I took that as a sign that I needed to make sure my other characters were being equally developed and coming through just as strongly. So, by the end, I couldn’t really name a favorite (and if I could, I’m not telling)! I’m curious to see who readers gravitate to.
I will however, say that Bero’s appearances in the story were particularly…refreshing to write because his worldview and his role in the story are so different from the rest.
What are you working on now? Any future projects we should keep an eye out for?
My next young adult science fiction novel, Cross Fire (the sequel to Exo) comes out May 2018. Right now, I’m hard at work on Jade War, the second book in the Green Bone Saga. It’s in its early stages yet, but I’m very excited about the direction it’s going.
About the Author
Fonda Lee is the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit) and the award-winning young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer(Flux) and Exo (Scholastic). Cross Fire, the sequel to Exo, releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, a black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado. She loves a good Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.