Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee
Fantasy: Jade City, Fonda Lee
Co-Winner, 2018 World Fantasy Award
Finalist for both the Nebula and Locus Awards
Jade City is what foreigners call Jonloon. It’s an apt name. Dominated by clans of Green Bones, the city is the center of trade in biogenetic jade, a mineral which allows some people to have extraordinary powers–and gives others a terrible addiction that leads to a painful death.
The Mountain and the No Peak clans are the two dominant clans in Jonloon. For many years there has been an uneasy truce between the clans, sharing the city and the jade mining and trade. That truce is coming to an end and open warfare is impacting the entire city. And no family is more affected by this change than the Kaul family, leaders of the No Peak clan.
Fonda Lee has written a masterpiece in Jade City. She has built an extraordinary world, a world which has both Asian and western resonance but which also stands on its own as a unique creation. Over the course of almost 500 pages she paints a city with a political dynamic that intentionally reminds readers of the mafia, an economy that is dependent on a single natural resource, a culture that is unique to itself (albeit with undeniable Asian influence), a religion that supports and defends the power of jade, and a family that is fiercely loyal to each other and to their clan.
The Kaul family is a dynasty. Their grandfather created the No Peak clan and led it to victory in war decades earlier. Grandson and eldest brother Lan now leads the clan, supported by his military leader and brother Hilo. Sister Shae wanted to chart a different course for her life, so she left her jade behind and moved to another country. She is now back, but is still trying to live her life away from the demands of being a Kaul. And cousin Anden is just finishing his education, trying to determine what the course of his life will be.
Jade City is a long book, but it needs every page. Lee allows the work to breathe and to build, introducing each character fully, developing them deeply, allowing them to take their place in turn at the center of the narrative. Lan is wise and cautious, but is forced to make a decision with consequences that change the entire direction of the book and his family. Hilo is brash and violent, but capable of passionate love for others and utterly loyal to those he loves. Shae thinks she can escape her family, but when they need her she rushes to them and embraces her role wholeheartedly. These siblings love deeply, fight bitterly, and display emotions that are consistent and true to their characters. I hated to see the final page turn to the acknowledgments.
Central to the book is the idea of jade. Jade is not just a precious gem. It has certain properties that change people. When they wear or touch jade, both physical and psychic powers are unlocked. They can increase their speed, strength, and stamina. They can sense emotions, deflect moving objects (and move stationary objects), and even stop the hearts of unwary opponents. For those lucky enough to be born with the ability to handle jade, this power allows them to dominate in society. Others have a sensitivity to it that gives them some of the power, but in more of an addictive fashion. These unfortunates will, when exposed to jade, experience power. They will also be consumed with lust for that power and, in time, the jade will poison their bodies and they will die a horrible death. A rare few are completely immune to jade. “Stone eyes” can touch jade without experiencing either the positive or negative consequences felt by others. And, recently, a drug called “shine” has developed which gives people some of the power of jade without actually having the gem. This new drug has destabilized the balance of power between the clans, and the delicate truce between them is devolving into open warfare.
Jade City is a beautifully written, powerful book that is worth the investment to read and appreciate. I am very excited about the sequel, expected in May 2019. There are still many challenges awaiting the Kaul family and the No Peak clan, and I am eager to see how they handle them.