by Fonda Lee
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.
I don’t know about you, but I have a bad habit of putting off books I’m sure I’m going to love because I’m ‘saving them’. What for? Not even I know, I guess I like the idea of having a book I’m guaranteed to love on the days I really need to pick something up that I’m going to enjoy. This doesn’t always work in my favour, though; when I finally got around to reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, which sounded so up my street, I only gave it 2 stars and it remains to this day one of the most disappointing novels I’ve ever read.
Luckily, that hasn’t been the case with Jade City! I’ve heard nothing but praise for this Asian-inspired fantasy novel, which I think can best be described as wuxia meets The Godfather, and that praise is well deserved. This book is so darn good. Weirdly it took me a few tries before I got into it, and buddy reading it with Dini certainly gave me the motivation to push through the opening scenes which aren’t boring at all, but for some reason kept stalling me, and I found that listening to the audiobook for this one when I went out walking really helped me get into this world—particularly when it came to some of the pronunciation!
Jade is mined on the island of Kekon, and can be used to enhance the magical abilities of those known as Green Bones. In Kekon’s capital city it’s not the politicians or the aristocracy who are in charge, but the gangs who rule the streets, patronise the businesses and line the politicians’ pockets with favours. The Kaul family is one such gang, ruled by the youngest Pillar—their name for a gang leader—it has ever known, because the previous Pillar, Kaul Sen, has been forced to pass power straight onto his grandchildren after his only son died in a war almost thirty years before. Each gang has a Pillar (Kaul Lan, the eldest of Kaul Sen’s grandchildren), a Horn, who is in charge of the streets and any fighting that occurs there (Kaul Hilo, Kaul Sen’s second grandson and Lan’s younger brother), and a Weather Man, who essentially controls the businesses and finances (Yun Dorupon, Kaul Sen’s oldest friend).
The Kaul family also boasts two extra members: Shae, Lan and Hilo’s younger sister and Sen’s favourite grandchild, who returns to Kekon after living abroad, hoping to stay out of the family business, and is ultimately drawn back to it; and Anden, the Kauls’ adopted cousin who is in his final year at the Academy where he is on his way to becoming a very skilled fighter who can follow in Hilo’s footsteps.
There are now two major gangs in Kekon—the No Peak Clan, ruled by the Kaul family, and the Mountain Clan, ruled by Ayt Mada who came to power after she had her brothers assassinated—and the majority of Jade City focuses on the increasing animosity between these two gangs as they fight for control over the city and, perhaps more importantly, for control of jade and its properties. Especially now that a new drug known as SN1, or ‘shine’, has been developed that gives its user the same powers that jade gives Green Bones. Ayt Mada (who, by the way, is one of my favourite characters in this novel because she’s deliciously shrewd and morally corrupt) believes that selling SN1 to foreigners is the way forward, whereas the Kauls don’t agree with people who aren’t Green Bones being allowed to have the same kind of powers they train years and years for.
I adored this book. When I reach for high fantasy I often find myself reading stories that are low on technology and high on cloaks and pretty dresses, which I love, but it was so refreshing to read a high fantasy novel set in a very modern world where there are cars and guns and high-rise buildings where business meetings are held. The world is so visceral, but it’s Fonda Lee’s characters, and the way she writes their relationships, that are this novel’s greatest triumph. I loved reading a fantasy novel about a family and the ways they stick together even during the moments when they might not like each other very much. They feel like a real family—with Lan having to come between Hilo and Shae when they start bickering; Hilo rolling his eyes every time he’s reminded that Shae is Sen’s favourite grandchild; Anden so desperately wanting Lan to be proud of him; and Sen insisting that everything was better in his day—to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if I bumped into them on the street, because they leap off the page.
This is one of the best, most original fantasy novels I’ve read in a while and has once again reminded me that I need to be reaching for more Asian-inspired fantasy. In fact this and The Sword of Kaigen are perhaps a hint that I should be looking for more modern, urban Asian-inspired fantasy. Fonda Lee can tell a damn good story and, after some of the turns this novel took, I don’t trust her with my feelings, but this book is fantastic and I am so excited to continue with the series.