Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a young and rising star in the violent sport of “zeroboxing,” a zero gravity form of cage fighting popular on Earth, Luna, and Mars. Luka is everything a marketer could want. Blessed with good looks, character, personality, a rags-to-riches life story, incredible talent and a drive to succeed and put in the work to do it, the league sees in him their opportunity to grow the sport. Enter Risha, a Mars-born “brandhelm” charged with making Luka the face of zeroboxing. Herself young and ambitious, she is successful in promoting Luka. More than that, the two fall in love.


Fonda Lee’s debut novel, Zeroboxer, chronicles the rise of the biggest sports star Earth has had in a long time, fighter possibly good enough to go up against the fearsome Martians, those genetically enhanced descendants of humans who were bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts from the third planet.


But during his rise, Luka becomes aware of a criminal conspiracy, one that puts him in possession of a secret that could destroy him and his family. If he keeps that secret, it could destroy everything and everyone he loves. But if he reveals the secret, it almost certainly would do the same thing.


Sometimes in sports you discover that you cannot win. You can always, though, refuse to quit. In that way, sports becomes a compelling metaphor for life.


Fonda Lee creates amazing characters. Luka and Risha feel like real people. Their motivations and their actions make sense. Luka loves his mother, loves his coach, and loves Risha. Risha also loves Luka. Luka fears losing, whether that is in the ring or in his life. Sometimes that fear clouds his judgment. Even when his decisions are questionable, though, his core remains firm.


Some of Lee’s best writing comes in her fight scenes. I will confess to not being a big fan of sports like boxing, wrestling, martial arts, UFC, etc. Lee’s descriptions, though, of a sport that does not actually exist, made it sound like she was in the cage with the fighters. Sweat, blood, pain, the feelings of victory and defeat. If zeroboxing ever becomes a real sport, I suspect that its chroniclers will use this novel as a reference tool.


I am not sure why this book is classified as YA. I suppose it is because the protagonist is a teen. The themes of the book are mature, though, and Lee certainly doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of violence, sex, or other adult themes. I wouldn’t say it is inappropriate for teens, but I wonder whether some audiences might pass on it thinking it is for kids. It is actually a great book that certainly appealed to this middle-aged reader.


Fonda Lee is a gifted writer who is just beginning to make her mark. Zeroboxer, like her more recent book Jade City, features gifted writing and memorable characters. I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee

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.

Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin

Book Review: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

Science Fiction: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

The day Chen turned fourteen his life changed forever. As his family celebrated, a storm struck the family’s house. A ball of lightning came in, destroying his t-shirt but leaving him uninjured and his other clothes intact. Food in the freezer was cooked and hot, but the freezer itself was unaffected. Tragically, his parents were turned to ash in front of his eyes. This horrific event set the course for the rest of Chen’s life: he became obsessed with studying ball lightning.


His study of ball lightning guided his studies at the university and led him after graduation to working with a beautiful female army major, whose own obsession with weapons research shaped the direction of their work. A theoretical physicist with no moral boundaries became the third member of their team. Together they discovered how to find and use ball lightning. Together they also realized that science without boundaries can have terrible and unintended results.


Ball Lightning was originally published in Chinese in 2005, but the English translation only came out in the fall of 2018. Author Liu Cixin (family name listed first here in the Chinese manner) is riding a wave of international attention after becoming the first writer from Asian to win the Hugo Award. His Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy garnered him that Hugo win and a Nebula nomination for the first of the series, The Three-Body Problem, and a Locus Award for the trilogy’s conclusion, Death’s End. (Both of those were translated by science fiction writer Ken Liu–no relation to the author.) Liu has also won the Galaxy Award, the top Chinese science fiction award, for best writer an amazing eight times! I suspect we will see more of Liu’s back catalog get translated into English and other languages as his fame spreads.


Chen is the ethical center of the trio studying ball lightning. Often conflicted about the work they are doing, largely because of his own tragic experience with the phenomenon, he leaves the project more than once but gets pulled back through his own loyalty to his friends and his country and through his own obsession with the object that changed his life. Chen ultimately discovers that ball lightning is not something that needs to be created. Rather, it is something that exists naturally but is typically harmless. When it is excited electrically, though, it has potentially devastating consequences.


When Chen does finally leave the project, he goes into research that has nothing to do with weapons or war. His work on tornadoes receives international attention: he is honored as an honorary citizen of Oklahoma City because of his work that allows precise prediction of tornadoes. But when war breaks out between the US and China, he comes to realize that even the best of research can have unexpected implications. And when his former colleagues take the ball lightning research to the next level, the results could be catastrophic for the entire planet.


Liu’s combination of hard science fiction and ethical quandaries makes for a fascinating exploration of human nature and the nature of wartime ethics. Just as Chen is shaped by the deaths of his parents, his colleague Lun Yun is shaped by the death of her mother from a novel wartime weapon in a previous conflict. She is not without ethics, but her desire is to make sure no other Chinese girls lose their mothers the way she lost hers. If that means creating an ultimate weapon, she is OK with that so long as it is deployed by China and not by their enemies.


It’s perhaps either a cliche or a truism (or both) that there are no good or evil tools. A scalpel can be a lifesaver in the hands of a surgeon or a life-ender in the hands of a murderer. When those tools are in the hands of scientists and soldiers, the implications may extend beyond individual lives and affect the lives of millions.


I suppose the same could be said for writers and words. When the writer is as gifted as Liu Cixin and the result is a novel as profound as Ball Lightning, the effect on the reader is likely to be profound.

Book Review:  Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)