Jade City by Fonda Lee
Publication date: 28 June 2019
Page count: 544 pages
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review
Jade City has been on my radar for ages — I’ve owned a copy for at least a year, but never got around to it. In an attempt to actually read the diverse fantasy that I keep buying, I decided to give it a try and wow. This is another book to add to the ‘why didn’t I read this sooner?’ shelf. An antidote to the medieval Eurpoean settings and stories that dominate modern fantasy, Jade City is a rich and wild ride about power, politics, and family.
In this epic saga of magic and kungfu, four siblings battle rival clans for honor and power in an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.
Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.
When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.
Jade City is the first novel in an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.
If you try to pinpoint what makes Jade City feel so unique in modern fantasy publishing, the first thing you’ll think of is probably the setting. The book takes place on an Asian-inspired island nation called Kekon, with the majority of the action taking place in the capital city of Janloon. Janloon is truly one of the characters in Jade City. You get such a fantastic sense of the city’s layout, neighborhoods, food, culture, traditions, and politics. Lee brings Janloon to life in a way so rarely seen in books — the sights, sounds, and smells of the city are so easily conjured in the mind of the reader. In addition, citizens of Kekon have access to things like guns, cars and motorcycles, radios, televisions, films, and comic books, giving Jade City a distinctly mid-20th century flavour. With the addition of the gangs and the ruling families, the book evokes a 1950’s atmosphere, which I absolutely loved.
The magic system in this book is phenomenal because it feels so incredibly grounded in reality. It would have been easy enough to show us that jade grants the Kekonese people powers and is therefore coveted, but Lee dives into the economics and politics of jade, from its sourcing and distribution to the foreign desire for jade and the powers it grants, as well as the way that jade has impacted and shaped Kekonese society. She also gives the Green Bones their own honour code and system of behaviour, resulting in an astonishingly realistic magic system. The power of jade and the Green Bones feels so incredibly real — to the point that at times I felt I was reading a not-so-distant history of a foreign land.
This book is all about family and what we do to protect those we love, so of course the characters are a huge part of Jade City’s appeal. The POV shifts effortlessly between Kaul Lan, Hilo, and Shae, the generation charged with the leadership of the No Peak Clan. Each of them has their own interests, beliefs, and motivations and are all fully fleshed-out characters. We also get some additional point of view chapters, such as from Andan, who has been adopted by the Kaul family and is training to be a Green Bone warrior. I loved reading about every POV character in the book, but I do have an overall favourite. I don’t know if this will be unpopular or not, but Hilo was easily my favourite character in Jade City. I love the way his character is explored and grows, as well as seeing the differences between the way his family and clan perceive him versus his actual thoughts and motivations. He’s such an wonderfully complex character and I’d love to see more like him pop up.
To boil this review down into one sentence, sweep aside everything else in your TBR pile and start reading Jade City now. I’ve been reading fantasy for nearly my entire life and this is among the best of the genre. I am counting down the days until I have Jade War in my hands!
CW: substance abuse and violence
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