Review of JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

“In the old Abukei myths Shae remembered Kyanla telling her as a child, the First Mother goddess, Nimuma, fell into the ocean and perished from exertion after creating the world. Her body became the island of Kekon, and the veins of jade that ran under these mountains were her bones. Her green bones.”

Can members of an criminal organization engaging in violent activities – an organization that by its very nature is abhorrent, ruthless, predatory, and motivated by power, greed, and self-preservation above all else – be ‘good’ or ‘noble’ people?

That is one of the questions that author Fonda Lee seems to pose to the readers of her celebrated, 2018 World Fantasy Award Winning gangster-filled urban fantasy novel, “Jade City”, Book One in the lauded “Green Bone Saga”.

This is a book that is part of a series so many of my friends from the writing community raved about, and had received so many prestigious accolades, I felt compelled to give it a try.

First, I’ll say outright, urban fantasy is NOT my preferred sub-genre in the greater fantasy sphere. However, thank goodness I did not let that deter me from trying this book out. It was exceptional.

Allow me to take a bit of time and explanation here to lay out the book’s premise.

The eponymous Jade City is the sobriquet of Janloon, which in the Asia-inspired world Lee creates, is the capital city of the island of Kekon.

Decades prior to the events seen in “Jade City”, Kekon was embroiled in the “Many Nations War”, a global conflict which saw Kekon occupied by hostiles from outside the country. A revolutionary group from within Kekon, known as the “One Mountain Society”, eventually arose to oust the foreign invaders. Once the war had ended, arguments about allowing international trade amongst various factions within the One Mountain Society propelled dissolution of that group into several distinct and competing tribal clans (essentially gangs) that viewed themselves as akin to noble feudal houses.

The largest and most dominant of all the gangs are 1)the “No Peak” Clan and 2)The “Mountain” Clan. No Peak is headed by the Kaul family, and though patriotic, favours international trade. Mountain Clan is more nationalist and insular in their approach, and is led by the Ayt family.

Like most organized crime gangs, No Peak and Mountain compete for territory, influence, money, and of course jade (though it is supposed to somewhat stringently controlled), and engage in typical mobster activities such as extortion, theft, protection rackets, prostitution, money laundering, murder, etc. and operate numerous legitimate businesses whose profits eventually help sustain the gang. Bigger gangs try to swallow up the smaller ones, even if that means just summarily eradicating them.

“Green bones could take credit for certain things, Lan figured. On the whole, Janloon was one of the safest cities in the world. The clans kept out foreign criminals and gangsters, stamped down street crime, and taxed and controlled vice at a level acceptable to the politicians and the public.”

That said, there is a moral code that governs the gangs, based on honour, that is supposed to prevent them from simply killing each other – and specific other members of society – with impunity. Of course, there is rarely complete honour among thieves. For example the current head of the Mountain simply eliminated the head of her gang and any opponents just to seize power, without worrying about being particularly honourable.

Jade is at the centre of the power of the gangs. Only Kekon, in all the world, produces jade, which imbues those who wear it with magical abilities. Only an ethnic group from Kekon – the Kekonese (as opposed to the indigenous people of Kekon called the Abukei, and as opposed to those foreign-born from outside Kekon) can successfully wield jade. Most of those happen to be members of the gangs, who earn the nickname of Green Bones.

“The Deitists believed it was a divine gift from the gods – the pat the human salvation. Some foreign religions said it was an evil substance from the devil, a belief the Shotarians had forcibly espoused during their decades of rule. Jade was imbued with so much myth and emotion, so much mystery and power, and yet, here it was -boring. Something to be dug up, cut up, moved, carved, polished, sold for profit.”

When rival Green Bones slay another in a fight, to the victor goes the spoils of the slain loser’s jade, making the winner even more powerful in the practical sense, having more talismans to use to harness power, and also more feared and illustrious, having won jade through mortal combat.

The story follows several POVs, but the main ones are from four members of the Kaul family: Lan, Hilo, Shae, and Anden.

Lan is the “Pillar” (think Mafia Don, or head of the clan / gang). His wife has abandoned him. His ailing grandfather – Sen – who started the No Peaks, and was a hero in the Many Nations War (given the moniker, “Torch of Kekon”), still casts a large shadow over Lan’s leadership. Lan’s leadership style differs from Sen’s. But will he be to maintain his grip on the family and their followers, unless his grasp is all steel, rather than steel mixed with velvet?

Hilo is the younger brother of Lan, and his chief enforcer. He is impulsive, reckless, but cunning and generous, and knows how to inspires his troops, and keep a stranglehold over No Peak territories, through extreme force, as required. Hilo is very popular in the clan, and feared by the enemy clans. But does Hilo’s own brother Land have more to fear from the charismatic thug who is his brother and right-hand, than any enemy clan?

Shae is sister to Lan and Hilo, and has just returned from being schooled abroad, and a high profile break-up with a foreign lover. Shae has tried to avoid becoming part of the family business at all costs, and abstained from wearing the jade that is her right. But though Shae’s lauded foreign education, looks, and smarts, in her mind might be better served in the corporate world, it’s hard to turn your back on your family, when they need you.

Anden is an adopted member of the Kaul’s, still a student, but a top one, at the Academy that trains future Green Bones. Anden has a bright future ahead of him in No Peak, and promises to be a powerful Jade-wielder. But No Peak soon needs full fledged warriors, not initiates, and Anden may be pressed into service sooner than expected.

This is brilliant, character-driven fantasy, which of course is just my jam. The dynamics between the siblings, as each tries to assert themselves and their role, carve their own path, while still trying to be imminently loyal to Lan as Pillar and the family, provides a lot of juicy conflict, and some of the best moments when they have arguments or heartfelt conversations. They all have very unique personalities, and are very well drawn.

Shae was my favourite character. Her struggle of one foot in, one foot out of her family’s business was one I found very compelling. Torn between two worlds – that of the gang she she was born into, and the life she believes she should aspire to, really had my attention.

“She had a graduate degree, her own apartment, and a job offer from an international company, one that any of her business school classmates in Espenia would’ve congratulated her on. She was at last the independent, worldly, educated woman who’d risen above the savagery and insular nature of her jade- and testosterone-fueled family. She was supposed to feel free and unencumbered, not lonely and uncertain.”

The Asian-inspired worldbuilding, and the soft magic system, was fabulous. Janloon feels like a real city, something between a fantasy version of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

I found the hierarchy with respect to the clans (i.e. with the Pillar at the head, his right and left hands the Horn and the Weather Man handling the enforcement versus business aspects respectively, then the various lieutenants like Fists and then the Fingers as foot soldiers) and how the dynamics work within that structure (similar to Mafia crime families) engrossing.

I also enjoyed the honour code of aisho, where there are definitive rules whereby Green Bones have a right to claim the jade at the end of a successful victory, and rigidly prevent the slaughter of the un-jaded, except in very specific occurrences.

Thinking of jade, brings me to discussing the magic system, and the relation between the magic users and their ethnicity and genetic composition, which was a very interesting aspect of what Lee does in the novel. Native Kekonese can deploy Jade long-term, but even they have to be careful, they can become overexposed to jade, resulting in a horrible affliction known as “The Itches”, which is fatal, and also drives the victim insane.

Meanwhile, “stone-eyes” are those Kekonese immune to jade, and these people are seen as unfortunate, and lesser in society than the Green Bones. Then, the Abukei are wholly immune to jade, and outsiders can’t handle dealing with jade unless they use a drug called “SN1” or “shine” to help dampen the intensity of the effects on the body.

Lee also did a phenomenal job of creating religion, lore, and backstory of the city of Janloon and country Kekon. She expands her universe in some delightful, brief, but illuminating chapters dedicated solely to exploring myths and legend, of such things as how the world was created, taking us away from the main action for a moment, but still increasing our immersion in the tale.

The themes in the book were very diverting, and the one I remarked on early in this review, is the one that really grabbed me. The clans in “Jade City” are an organized crime family, and crime families are a plague on any society.

And yet, for many, as much as they are feared, the clans are revered, and thought to be somewhat benevolent, when they are seen in their best light. The clans also see themselves as humane and kind-hearted as they are vicious and cruel. Lan, in particular, seems to be particularly honourable (for a crime boss), thoughtful, even noble, and an empathetic and wise leader.

The complicated legacy of the clans’ inception, springing from being liberators and resistance fighters, their restriction of crime to largely only what they commit or control, their outward, even genuine philanthropic efforts, combined with their code of honour, convoluting perception of their savage actions and forced dominance.

“Green Bones protected and came to the aid of common people in times of need; it had been that way for as long as there had been Green Bones.”

But Lee does not allow the reader to forget, as is appropriate, that these are bloodthirsty regimes that prey upon the weak, manipulate, blackmail, maim, kill and do lots of bad things in the name of self-preservation and profits. It’s a cold-blooded, callous world, where violence is the only way, ultimately, to succeed.

“‘Ever since the Torch got old and retired, the other clans assume No Peak’s in decline. They won’t pay us respect unless some blood gets spilled once in a while.'”

Lee’s prose is great, smooth, and she writes with clarity and aplomb.

The action scenes are glorious, cinematic in how they are written. Lee has a background in martial arts, and it shows in her writing. A mix of jade-enhanced magical combat, nail-biting hand-hand fighting, a clash of blades, and bullets flying, Lee’s combat sequences will have the reader on the edge of their seat.

Full of bloody betrayals, merciless clan rivalries and internal politics, with a larger geopolitical schemes seemingly headed to the forefront in coming installments, satisfying vengeance, greed, honour, loyalty, history, lore, religion, love, lust, faith, family and found family, petty criminals getting their chance for more, ferocious jaded warriors, slick corporate types, charismatic leaders, cowardly actions, comeuppances, and more, this book was dynamite!

I can see why so many are so enthusiastic about the “Green Bone Saga”. Urban fantasy fans, if you also like crime dramas and Kung Fu films, you’ll absolutely love this one!

I’m “all in” for this series, and can’t wait to read about the escalating conflict bound to occur in the next installment, “Jade War”!

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