Title: Jade City
Author: Fonda Lee
Genre: Asian urban fantasy
In this Asian-flavored urban fantasy, in the island of Kekon, jade is much more than a stone you might see on someone’s Buddhist pendant. In Jade City, it can be a weapon and a reckoning force requiring proper training. It’s brimming with life and energy, highly valued and desired, empowering and sometimes corrupting those who are privileged (or strong enough) to wield it. Fonda Lee spins out a gripping start to what promises to be an epic saga. Tension sparks and stretches taut throughout the narrative, not just between rival jade-wielding clans grappling for supremacy over the city Janloon, but among a family struggling to stay strong and work together before and after a dreaded open war.
Of the two dominant clans, Mountain and No Peak, Lee sides with the latter for the book’s protagonists. Lan is the Pillar of No Peak, its level-headed leader trying to maintain order and uphold his deteriorating grandfather’s legacy. Hilo is the Horn, the clan’s head enforcer leading Fists and Fingers to protect No Peak territory and their patrons. He may be hot-headed and needing to be reined in at times by his brother Lan, but he’s a great fighter and extremely loyal to the clan brotherhood. Shae, their sister, leaves most of the Kaul family in shock with her decision to obtain a foreign education and go jadeless. Anden, their adopted teenage cousin by tragic circumstance, undergoes academy training to wield jade, be an asset to the family that took him in, and overcome the stigma of his mixed blood and madness plaguing his bloodline. Despite differences in personalities, demeanors, and strictly defined clan roles, the Kaul siblings make their family’s wellbeing and best interests their priority.
Lee weaves together clan violence and political diplomacy in a way that neither detracts from the other in terms of worldbuilding and pacing, but rather flesh out a cohesive whole on how the power of jade courses through every aspect of life in Janloon, from how jade is allocated to how it dictates the honor code among Green Bones. The tidal wave of war upturns everyone’s world upside down, thrusting them out of their element and into roles they must carry out but struggle under the burden and pressure. This made the second half of the book read with compelling, breakneck pacing. Character names and clan terminology took some getting used to, since some of them didn’t sound very Asian and it’s probably a bad curiosity-driven habit of mine to keep looking for parallels in culture and history between the real world and this alternate Earth, but I didn’t feel lost and bogged down with information overload. (I will say, though, that I really appreciate the cultural tidbit of Kekonese people downplaying compliments and deflecting flattery. That’s very, distinctly Chinese.)
Though clan brotherhood is, as the term implies, testosterone-fueled and dominated by men, the story makes room for strong, smart female characters like Shae, who uses her business skills to keep her family afloat in Janloon’s upheaving political landscape, and Ayt Mada, the cunning, ambitious Pillar of the Mountain clan who proves a formidable opponent for her No Peak rivals. What stands out to me as the story’s greatest strength is Lee making jade its own character. It feels very much alive through the characters who wield it. Jade acts as a gateway not only to superhuman abilities like Channeling, Steel, and Light, but as a gateway to emotion through Perception. It’s a clever device allowing for some head-hopping; the third person limited POV opens up a bit when other characters “wear their feelings on their sleeves” via jade aura. The city Janloon is somewhat its own character as well, thanks to vivid imagery that gives life to seedy districts, bustling streets, and illustrious clan estates alike. I also really enjoy reading the tangible and believable family dynamics that drive and shape the course of events.
I look forward to seeing more what more Hilo, Shae, and Anden will do and how they will affect the future of Janloon. The ending clearly sets up for speculation and foreshadowing of a sequel, and I am eager to dig deeper into the world Lee has created for these characters. I wonder if Janloon will have its very roots and foundations shaken and the clan system would be dismantled entirely. Through Shae’s brief break from her family and Anden’s uncertainty and internal conflict, Lee opens up the possibilities that a happy and prosperous life can exist beyond jade and the clan brotherhood at Kekon. If you’re looking for good immersive Asian fantasy to read this year, I recommend starting with Jade City.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book, or the content of my review.