Fonda Lee – Jade City

Jade is the lifeblood of the city of Janloon – a stone that enhances a warrior’s natural strength and speed. It is mined, traded, stolen and killed for, all controlled by the ruthless No Peak and Mountain families. When a modern drug emerges that allows anyone — even foreigners — to wield jade, simmering tension between the two families erupts into clan war. 

A modern, secondary world fantasy novel is not something I’ve run across before as far as I can remember. Usually fantasy in a modern setting is set in our own world — with a twist, obviously — but it is certainly, recognisably our own and quite often shelved under urban fantasy. And while Fonda Lee’s Jade City is certainly urban and fantasy, it isn’t what you’d expect when picking up a novel that has been categorised as such. It is a novel that combines intrigue, politics, action, and drama in a setting that feels East Asia-inspired. In short, it was literal catnip to me. 

I loved the world-building in this, it was rich, layered, and had a deep history, that we’ve only scratched the surface of in this first book in the series. Janloon is a city caught between tradition and modernisation and this mixture creates a lot of tension both within and without the halls of Janloon power. What I found really fascinating was the idea behind the saying “Jade and Gold, never together.” The idea that the two forms of power within the city should never be mixed, because it could lead to tyranny was resonant, yet there were also many hints and clues that this might not be held to in the course of this series. I wonder whether this suspicion I have that all power may end up held by one person is just me reading to much into the narrative or whether this really is something Lee is setting up for later books in the sequence.

The Jade, of course, refers to the stones that bring Janloon its power and to the Green Bones, the clan warriors that are trained to use the stones to enhance their natural prowess in battle. The concept of jade’s power-enhancing qualities was intriguing, especially coupled with the side effects it can have. Aside from the horrid idea of the Itches, which seems like it is an allergic reaction which manifests as paranoia and psychosis, there is also the trauma it can induce. Not just witnessing the Itches in other people and the fear that might engender, but also just the psychic effects of its use in combat. There are several examples of warriors being mentally injured by the psychic blowback of using jade power to kill. This is most clearly present in Anden’s story arc. His fear of whether he’ll have inherited his mum’s sensitivity to jade and whether he can “handle” it, create a huge internal struggle for him, especially as he feels a strong loyalty to the Kauls and wants to conform to family expectations.

The struggle with family expectations and rebellion against tradition, great and small, is a returning theme in the book, most notably with Shae, the youngest Kaul sibling. Shae has competed with her brothers, especially Hiro, the current Horn or war leader of the clan, her entire life, never feeling as if she’d be seen as equal and an individual. At the beginning of the book, she returns to Janloon after having lived abroad for a number of years and she resists the pull of her family, trying to build her own life and I found her story compelling and she was definitely one of my favourite characters. Her budding friendship with Wen, Hiro’s girlfriend, was wonderful and I hope we get to see more of their interactions in the next book.

Family honour is everything and the inviolability of aisho, the Green Bone code of honour is core to Janloon society, yet both the Kauls and the Ayts always balance on a knife’s edge, trying to further their family’s honour and position without breaking aisho. This makes for interesting moral dilemmas, which do not always play out well. Lee doesn’t keep any of her characters safe, which makes the narrative tense and suspenseful.

There are so many more brilliant elements to this book: the racial tensions at play between the Kekonese, Abukei, and the Espenians; the international political conflicts between Kekon and the rest of the world; the societal problems caused by SN1, a drug that allows non-Kekonese to use jade without getting the Itches; and the power struggle between the Mountain and No Peak clans. Lee mixes all of these together in a heady brew that, particularly in the second half of the novel, kept me turning pages and reading “just one more chapter…” I loved this first book in the Green Bone Saga. I fell in love with the characters and the setting of Jade City and I can’t wait to return to Janloon and the Kauls to see what happens next.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.