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Review: Jade City, by Fonda Lee

The Matrix meets The Godfather in a cool kung-fu fantasy.

Towards the end of 2021 I picked up Jade City (published 2017) at the recommendation of author Suzannah Rowntree. I’d been disappointed by many of the books I read last year, and was wary of diving into another book that would leave me unimpressed. But the concept sounded cool, so in I went.I’m glad I did. Jade City turned out to be one of my best reads last year.

The Setting

I like the understated vibe of this cover.

The island of Kekon is a vaguely Japanese/Hong Kong look-alike, ruled by two clans: the Mountain clan, led by the Ayt family, and the No Peak clan, dominated by the Kaul family. These two clans are similar to Mafioso families, with the heads of the Clan (the Pillar) having warriors (the Fists) led by the Horn. The business activities of the clan are managed by the clan’s Weather Man. The clans each control parts of Janloon, the main city of Kekon, where businesses pay them tribute in return for protection and patronage by the clan leaders.

The two clans were birthed from the One Mountain Society, a liberation movement that occurred in the Many Nations War, which took place during the previous generation. This war freed Kekon from foreign control. After the war the Society could not agree on whether or not to be open to international trade and how much foreign influence to allow and the two rival clans were born. Mountain is more isolationist, and No Peak are open to foreign trade.

The issue of trade is a big one because Kekon is the only source of the world’s jade, which in some genetically predisposed individuals, can endow its users with superhuman abilities–think the Matrix–giving those who wear it super-strength, quickness and agility, as well as enhanced hearing and other heightened senses. But use of it is tricky. The native inhabitants of Kekon, the Abukei, are completely resistant to its effects, while those from outside Kekon are too sensitive to it, and its use leads to madness and death. Only those Kekonese with mixed native and settler bloodlines can use the jade properly, with training.

Two Warring Clans

All of this sets the stage for Jade City. The book opens with the head of the No Peak clan nearing his death, and his grandchildren are all facing the reality of carrying on without him. Their father was killed during the Many Nations War, so it is up to them to lead the clan now. Lan, the eldest, has recently been named the new Pillar, and his brother Hilo is the more volatile Horn, a seasoned street fighter whose Fists are devoted to him.The youngest sibling, their sister Shae, left behind her jade by choice and foreswore all positions in the Clan when she left Kekon with her non-Kekonese lover and pursued a foreign education. But she has recently returned after the break-up with her boyfriend, and now seeks employment in a non-Clan business. She wants to further the interests of Kekon, but not through the violence of the clans. Anden is an adopted grandson of the Kauls and a cousin of the others. He is a mixed-race orphan whose mother succumbed to the Itches, a condition of jade intolerance that can affect the Green Bones (those who wear jade for its power). He is a student in the Academy who is finishing up his last year of studies and martial arts training as he learns to harness the power of jade.

The Mountain clan, led by the ruthless Ayt Mada, senses an opportunity with the passing of the former Pillar’s torch to the younger generation of Kauls. She makes overtures to No Peak that indicate she wants the two clans to reunite back into one, but in reality she is biding time while her clan secretly skims money from the sale of jade, which is managed by the Kekon Jade Alliance. The Alliance shares the profit with both clans in order to keep the sale of Kekon’s most valuable asset out of the control of one clan alone.

But the old ways are disappearing in more ways that one. A drug known as “Shine”, used to treat overuse of jade by Green Bone warriors, is now being used by foreigners to allow them to tap into jade’s power, a threat to Kekon’s financial stability. A shocking event sends fatal reverberations throughout Kekon and soon, open war between the clans breaks out, with dire repercussions for the Kaul siblings.

A Fun Read

Jade City was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I really liked the Asian setting of the novel, and the addition of jade imparting special abilities to individuals added a fun and interesting element which tied in well to the setting. The characters were well-drawn and I found myself rooting for each of the siblings as the book progressed. Shae’s journey was particularly interesting as she finds herself getting drawn into the life of the Clan despite her best intentions (Michael Corleone-like).

The only think I didn’t like about it was more to do with me than the novel. You will note that I called Kekon like Hong Kong/Japan and have used other comparisons between our own world and the world of Jade City. That’s because this novel is set in an Earth-like world. There are planes, cars, phones, submachine guns and other Earth weaponry, as well as clothing, buildings, etc. I do have a bit of a pet peeve against fantasy books set in worlds that may as well be Earth but aren’t, so that was an underlying niggle that surfaced for me throughout the book.

But Fonda Lee’s deft handling of the plot and the story world was such that it was not a big niggle. I loved the politics and the underlying tensions between the previous generation’s ideals and the younger ones who were trying to make their way. The characters were interesting people and there was just enough action and fights to keep me reading but not so much as to overwhelm the plot.

In doing a little research on Fonda Lee, I discovered to my delight that she is a Canadian author, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. After publishing two young-adult speculative fiction novels to much acclaim, Jade City was her debut fantasy novel for adults, published in 2017. It won the World Fantasy Award in 2018. Two other books complete the Green Bone trilogy: Jade War (2019) and Jade Legacy (2021).

I’m looking forward to reading these and completing the story begun in Jade City. If you like the idea of a Godfather/Matrix mash-up set in a Earth-like setting, these books are for you!

Want more fantasy? Try my historical fantasy trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, where a young man from our time stumbles into the past and into a deadly plot that will change history as he knows it.