Intrigue and Imagination in Fonda Lee’s Jade City


Detail, Table screen with landscape scene, Qing dynasty, China (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The island nation Kekon is controlled by clans of Green Bones, warriors who enhance their abilities with the magical properties of jade. After repelling outsiders from their shores, the struggle turned from defending their island and way of life to competing for control of the capital city, Janloon. Over the years, two clans have risen to the top: No Peak and the Mountain. But the leader of the Mountain clan has an insatiable desire for power leading to an uncomfortable friction in Janloon, and the rise of a new drug called shine may cause that friction to erupt into flames.

Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut Jade City follows the rising generation of No Peak leaders, four Green Bones tied not only by bonds of clan, but bonds of blood: Kaul Lan, the clan’s leader, called the Pillar; Kaul Hilo, the second son, who serves as its enforcer as the Horn; their sister Shae, the prodigal daughter freshly returned from her studies abroad; and Anden, a teenager months shy of completing his Green Bone training, their cousin and honorary third brother.

Family drama plays a central role in the story, portraying complex relationships between the siblings: eldest brother Lan doesn’t have nearly the fighting skill as the hotheaded Hilo, and the rivalry between Hilo and Shae serves as a driving force for both Shae’s flight from Kekon and her reluctance to rejoin No Peak as a Green Bone. Anden, taken in by the Kauls after losing his parents, struggles with wondering whether he truly has a place among the powerful siblings. And all of them struggle with their relationships with their grandfather and former No Peak Pillar, Kaul Sen, a once-formidable warrior becoming more cruel and unkind as he crumbles with age. As the novel runs its course, the family’s dynamic changes dramatically, and their bickering and resolutions alike impact the atmosphere within the clan.

Though each perspective character is compelling and multifaceted, the storyline that feels the most fleshed-out belongs to Shae. The third sibling and the only sister in the pack, Shae arrives in Janloon at the beginning of the book with her tail between her legs after essentially running away from Kekon to study abroad only to discover that the rest of the world views her home and the Green Bones way of life as barbaric. Upon her return, she reflects on many aspects of clan life that drove her away in the first place. Shae’s experiences are far more broad and cosmopolitan than her brothers’, and her perspectives on inter-clan aggressions have greater complexity and nuance than other characters’. Shae is especially fascinating as both a parallel to and contrast against Ayt Mada, the Pillar of the Mountain clan — two powerful women existing in a world controlled by men who choose drastically different paths.

Jade City is touted as a fantasy version of The Godfather, and the tension between the Kaul family as well as the mounting conflict between No Peak and the rival Mountain clan is evocative of mafia movies and Hong Kong gangster films alike. Lee builds the tension between the two clans – and between No Peak’s Kaul family and Mountain Pillar Ayt Mada – with careful skill, giving the reader alternating sensations of weighty dread, pensive quiet, and rushing exhilaration as the simmering unease between the clans threatens to explode.

The fights between No Peak and the Mountain are exciting to read, especially descriptions of how jade is used to increase abilities, but the action fantasy aspect is muted in comparison to the tension and intrigue of the clans’ battle for control. In Kekon, jade isn’t just a tool used for magical enhancements: it’s an important aspect of the Kekonese economy. The enhancement drug known as shine, which grants jade-user abilities to those born without it, may disrupt not only the Kekonese economy, but the entire development of Kekonese and Green Bones culture. When war finally does break out between the two clans, No Peak’s concerns and motivations aren’t solely tied to the Kaul family’s honor: they have very serious economic concerns as well as a duty to protect the jadeless citizens who live within their territories.

These aspects ground Jade City in a world that feels lived-in and so plausible that it’s almost harder to imagine it’s not real than having to suspend disbelief. The city the Kauls occupy and control is lusciously real, from the relative opulence of the clan homes to the streets and slums where the jadeless live out their everyday lives. Janloon reads in many ways as claustrophobic: an insular city where anyone who can use jade may find themselves trapped in a life, a family, a clan that can’t be escaped.

Listed as the first book in the Green Bones saga, Jade City’s compelling family saga and immersive world-building makes it an enthralling read that’s difficult to pull away from at times. The vividness of the world-building alone makes Lee’s latest novel stand out during a year filled with fantastic speculative fiction. The Green Bones saga will definitely be a series to keep an eye on as the Kaul family’s story unfolds.