Jade City by Fonda Lee

A review by JC Kang

Aficionados of Hong Kong Cinema, hear me out: Imagine Chow Yun-Fat in one of his classic ‘90s Triad movies, but give him the superhuman martial skills from the Show Brothers’ Golden Age of Wuxia. Add in the complex plotting and backstabbing of Game of Thrones, and you have Fonda Lee’s Jade City.

I stumbled upon the book quite accidentally, when the author hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit’s r/Fantasy. When the Amazon product page tagline described book one of the Jade Bone Saga as, “an epic saga reminiscent of The Godfather with magic and kung-fu, set in an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis,” I one-clicked it, and put it at the summit of Mount TBR.

Bandying the title of Fantasy-Faction Contributor, I was able to wheedle the audiobook from the publisher, Orbit; but really, with the large cast of characters and fabulously intricate world building, Jade City was easier for me to read than follow on audiobook. With Lee’s flair for prose and masterful control of a limited omniscient narrative distance, the words melted away, immersing me in a Godfather-like battle between rival clans on a second world-Taiwan.

Like in real-life Taiwan, where the Chinese Han supplanted the aboriginals, only to be later occupied by the Dutch, the constitutional monarchy of Kekkon has similar ethnic frictions. The aboriginal Abukei have been oppressed by the Kekkonese, who in turn, were subjugated by the Espenians. A war in living memory expelled these occupiers. With independence has come an economic order centered on Jade.

And not just ordinary jade, but what the Espenians call “bioenergetic jade.” I got the image of Kryptonite from Superman: a radioactive green mineral, which in large enough doses and long enough exposure, will have nasty side effects. On the other hand, Jade can also imbue people with superhuman abilities, like heightened reflexes and toughening the skin against blades and bullets. Each race responds differently: Abukei are totally resistant to Jade. Espenians can channel it, but it has a devastating impact on them. Only Kekkonese (save for the “Stone-Eyes,” who are like Abukei with Jade resistance) can train themselves to maximize their Jade channeling, while reducing the harmful side effects.

A technological level equivalent to our Post WWII era coexists with a traditional culture, and jargon has sprung up around Jade. Armed with talon knives (as a Wing Chun practitioner, I was tickled when I realized these were butterfly swords. Then, after my interview with Ms. Lee, I found out that the knives were based on kerambit, but she said I should just use my imagination) and crescent blades, Green Bones are the frontline warriors whose jade channeling can overcome even firearms. They serve the clans, the junior-most known as Fingers, who are led by a Fist, who in turn are commanded by the Horn. The Horn serves as the military advisor to the Pillar, a Mafia Godfather-like figure; who is also advised in business affairs by the Weatherman. The clan is supported by Lantern Men: business owners who pay dues; and Fortune Bringers: lawyers, accountants, and other professionals.

On the surface, the central conflict of Jade City appears to be a turf war between rival clans, but the brilliant, multi-layered plot spreads slimy tentacles into the global economy. While there are several POV characters who drive the story, the primary players belong to the ruling family of the No Peak Clan. Just as the urban fantasy setting feels believable and real, these characters feel like flesh and blood, with fears, dreams, and baggage.

Though a talented Green Bone, Lan, the Pillar, is too kindhearted for his position. He’s been scarred by romantic betrayal and lives in the shadow of his slain war hero father. His brother Hilo, is charismatic and straightforward, perfect for his role as Horn. Their sister, Shea, who had given up Jade and left the country for a boy and a higher education, has just returned home and wants to stay out of clan affairs. Finally, Andy is the adopted brother, a half-Espenian whose mother was a particularly powerful, but disturbed, Green Bone. Now in his final year at their clan’s Green Bone training academy, he is the clan’s hope as they face the more imposing Mountain Clan.

The secondary characters also shine. None of the antagonists come across as stereotypical villains, while friends and allies are memorable in their three dimensional portrayal. The No Peak Clan’s former Pillar, a war hero known as the Torch, stands out particularly well within both the rich history and current narrative.

With the fabulous worldbuilding, wonderful prose, intricate plot, and unforgettable characters, I rate Jade City a 9.69 (the same I give pan-fried beef noodles from my favorite Cantonese restaurant), and promote the author to Weatherman.

*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction. It has been republished here with permission of the reviewer.

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