Title: Jade City
Author: Fonda Lee
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Series? Yes, 1 of 3
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Hachette Australia in exchange for an honest review.
I read Jade City after a brief reading slump (thanks, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp!) and it was everything I needed to reignite my love for reading and losing myself in another world. Today I have both a book review and an author interview with Fonda Lee to share with you! You’ll find the interview at the end of the post, please check it out and give Fonda’s books some love!
Jade City is a boldly ambitious and culturally distinctive urban fantasy, merging gangster drama with wuxia flair to create a complex story about family, honour, and national pride. The book sets the bar sky-high on numerous fronts, whether it’s attentive character development, sensory stimulating fight scenes, or cut-throat political trade wars. However, what I loved most about Jade City is its carefully considered and provoking theme which ties jade to birthright, to power, to duty, and to family. I found the book’s exploration of identity in a nation ruled by jade and blood immensely moving and powerful.
Jade is the lifeblood of the island nation of Kekon, the precious stone has the power to imbue its wearers with superhuman strength and speed. The ability to harness the power of jade is a bloodright, exclusive to the Kekonese Greenbones. It’s this unique power that enabled Greenbone warriors to win Kekon’s independence from the Shotarian empire several decades ago. In those days, the Greenbones were strongly united by the One Mountain Clan, lead by the indomitable Kaul Sen and Ayt Yugotin. Although the Kauls and Ayts won the war together, financial temptations in times of peace fractured their alliance and created two rival clans, No Peak and The Mountains. These two clans rule Kekon from the shadows, their territory disputes and bloody battles for jade determines the fate of the nation.
At the heart of this novel are the siblings of the Kaul family: Lan, Hilo, and Shae. Each of these characters are complex, and their interactions are layered with shared history and personal machination. Lan is the eldest, the current Pillar of the No Peak clan. He is a measured and considerate leader, yet plagued by the fear that he lacks the ferocious intensity of his forefathers. Hilo is the Kaul’s fiery and magnetic second son, his lopsided smile belies the Horn’s sharp instinct for gang wars and bloodshed. Out of all the siblings, Hilo has the closest relationships to the Fists and Fingers, Greenbone warriors who have sworn allegiance to the clan. Shae is the only prominent female member of the Kaul family, her struggle to grapple control of her own identity within this patriarchal society ruled by jade and blood is riveting. While there is love between the siblings, their relationships also simmer with tension and unspoken resentment. The Kauls have some of the most interesting sibling dynamics I’ve seen in fiction.
Alongside with the Kaul siblings, there are several other point of views that flits in and out of the narrative. Among them, Anden Emery, a mixed blood boy adopted by the Kaul family, is the most compelling and promising. Anden’s biological mother met a bloody and dishonourable end due to jade overdose, and he’s taxed by the thought he will never live up to the prestigious Kaul name. His chapters also reveal the Kekonese’s aversion to the Espenian – this world’s analog of a Western nation. Homosexuality and how it is viewed within Kekonese society is also explored in Anden’s chapters, and I can’t wait to see more from his viewpoint as the series progresses.
Another thing I loved about Jade City is how it dealt with women in positions of power in this essentially patriarchal society. Shae is the leading female voice in this story, but there are other women of note who employs various ways to exert influence within Kekon. Ayt Mada, the Pillar of The Mountain and the main villain of the novel, was an absolutely fascinating character with her ruthless cunning and ambitious goals for Kekon. On the other hand, we have Hilo’s beautiful lover, Wen – who is kept from most of the action due to being a stone-eye – a Kekonese who is naturally inert to jade. I am also hopeful to see the series expand on Wen’s role, as she is so incisively perceptive and has a natural knack for politics.
Jade City is populated by a cast of distinctive and memorable characters from all walks of life, but what brings the novel to life is the fully realised and immersive world building. Kekon is at once familiar, seeming to recall real-life Asian island nations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan – while also existing as a unique and improbable country where jade grants superpower. There are so many details weaved into the world building, from the way jade is revered, to the political climate and Kekon’s emerging economic wealth, to the holidays and traditions that these characters celebrate. The way Jade City uses multiple cultural influences to create a world all its own reminds me of another of my favourite reads of 2017 – Ken Liu’s silkpunk The Grace of Kings. Kekon feels real and authentic, and I can’t wait to re-enter this vividly imagined world with the sequel.
The series also has incredible potential to reach beyond Kekon and envelop the world at large. Within this novel, readers can already see tendrils of future international conflicts with the looming shadow of Espenia and Ygotan. While citizens of these nations have no natural ability to wield jade, their avarice for the precious stone is fuelled by the emergence of a drug which enables foreigners to activate jade. What unfolds is a complex and compelling discussion about heritage, identity, and choice. At the same time, it allows Jade City to explore an intricate political plotline that is as page-turning as its heart-stopping fight scenes.
Bottom Line: This is easily one of my favourite books of 2017, and I wish more people were reading it so you can all discuss the characters with me. Please let me know in the comments below if you’ve read Jade City or Fonda Lee’s other novels (Zeroboxer and EXO). I have a copy of both her previous works and can’t wait to start!
1. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and answer some of my questions! Jade plays a pivotal role within the Green Bone Saga, why did you pick jade as the foundation of this fantasy world?
Thank you for having me here!
Jade has been prized as a symbol of power, status, and virtue throughout thousands of years of Chinese history. It’s been called the “Stone of Heaven” and was thought to be a substance that connected the earthly and divine realms.
It was already figuratively magical—in my fictional world, I made it literally so.
2. I absolutely loved the mix of cultural influences in Jade City, what kind of research did you have to do to construct the vibrant nation of Kekon and Janloon City?
I based Kekon and Janloon on a mix of historical, cultural, and geographic influences that included Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Okinawa in the latter half of the twentieth century. I did a lot of research on the history and culture of organized crime groups including the Chinese Triads, Japanese Yakuza, and Italian-American Mafia. I read about Chicago during the time of Al Capone and the Gangs of New York in the 19th century. I learned about jade mining in Burma and the blood diamond trade in Africa and drug trafficking in Mexico. I let it all seep into my brain and used different aspects of everything I’d learned to create the world of Jade City.
3. What was the best piece of writing advice you received while writing Jade City? What is one thing you discovered about your own writing through Jade City?
After reading an early draft of Jade City, my agent, Jim McCarthy, urged me to make the large, ambitious, sweeping story of Jade City feel more immediate and grounded in the experiences of the main characters, and he pushed me to really dig deep and further flesh out their motivations. That advice really helped me revise the manuscript and take it to the next level. I discovered that I enjoy, and am good at, writing multiple POVs. My previous novels featured single POVs, but there was no way I could tell the story I wanted to tell in Jade City that way. As it turns out, having multiple POVs not only gives the author more flexibility and broadens the scope of the story, it offers opportunities to deepen characterization in a way that you can’t get when you’re confined to one POV.
4. In a crossover universe that united the characters of Zeroboxer, EXO, and Jade City – which of your characters would become fast friends, and who would become mortal enemies?
Donovan Reyes and Kaul Lan would probably find quite a bit of common ground. Kaul Hilo and Jet Matthews would hit it off, and they might make friends with Carr Luka so long as the three of them were hanging out together and not competing in any way (if they were, they’d be ruthless rivals). Kaul Shae and Risha Ponn would make a formidable team, but they’d likely be too aloof and suspicious of each other for that to happen.
5. I saw in the acknowledgement that you had some fun dream casting Jade City with editor Sarah Guan, would you mind sharing your dream cast for the main characters?
Well, most of our picks are too old to play the characters now, but since we’re fantasizing here, we’d want someone with the gravitas of Tony Leung to play Lan, and a young Michelle Yeoh would be great as Shae. I’m going with Lewis Tan for Hilo. Zhang Ziyi as Wen. And I’d have an open casting call for some new, talented biracial actor to step in as Anden.
6. Jade City was in parts inspired by gangster sagas and kung-fu films, could you recommend of your favourites for readers who loved Jade City?
In my mind, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are perfect films. Top of my list in Asian gangster movies would be Infernal Affairs and Election. If you have the patience for it, check out the entire Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza series. As for kung fu movies…gosh, there are so many: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of course, Hero, Ip Man, Once Upon A Time In China, Fist of Fury, its remake Fist of Legend, Kill Bill Volume 1… I could go on.
7. Many stories involving clans and gang-wars tend to sideline women from the narrative, I loved that Jade City had a cast of multifaceted female characters. Could you tell us about how you went about creating these characters?
The truth is that while war and violence naturally lend themselves to a predominantly male narrative, women are not absent, and in fact, sometimes have pivotal roles. There are numerous real life accounts of this. One of the most feared Irish gangsters in New York’s Five Points district in the 1840s-50s was “Hell Cat Maggie” who filed her teeth to points and wore brass fingernails into battle. In 1984, a woman named Fumiko Taoka briefly took over the leadership of the Yamaguchi-guma, the largest Yakuza organization in Japan, after her husband’s death. In Naples, there are a growing number of female Mafioso in positions of power. So there’s no reason for women to be absent in crime and gang stories. (Think of Carmela in The Sopranos.) One of the things I wanted to accomplish in Jade City was to depict a society and a culture being altered, sometimes painfully, by the march of modernity, and the changing role of women is part of that. For example, there’s a stark contrast between Shae, and her mother, who is a the willingly ignorant “mob wife.” There are powerful female characters in Jade City, but like in our own world, they walk a difficult path.
8. Jade City juggles between multiple point of views, out of these characters who were the most effortless, most challenging, and most surprising to write?
It’s really hard to look back now and say which were the easiest and hardest characters to write; I connected with each of them on some level and they all presented their own challenges. I worked intently on every one of them. The most surprising, however, was Bero. He started out as a bit character that I intended as a device to frame the story at the beginning, but he walked on stage and stayed on to affect the story in major ways.
Fonda Lee is the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit) and the award-winning young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic). Cross Fire, the sequel to Exo, releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, a black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado. She loves a good Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.