First I’d like to clear the air and say that although I probably ought to be a better person by now, let it be known that I’ll shamelessly judge you if you don’t read Jade City. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that we can’t be friends if you don’t, but, hey, we never know.
Jade City is the kind of books that make me second guess all my recent 5 stars reads – even if I know for a fact that it’s just ridiculous. Loving something shouldn’t dim the brilliance of everything else. Now, I make a – entirely mental, and mostly unnoticed – distinction between my 5 stars reads. Some earn 5 stars because for me, they do their job, either to make me smile or escape or fear.
Others, well. Other earn 5 stars because they enter my personal Graal and I’ll recommend them to all my friends because THEY’RE THAT GOOD.
Jade City? Dude. It was already part of the second category before I reached the halfway point, and it kept getting better and better. READ THAT BOOK. DO IT. NOW.
If you need to know why, well, I guess you’ll have to read on :
Welcome, dear readers, and buckle up, because it’s gonna be a long ride.
Welcome to Kekon, centerpiece of what Fonda Lee called “a heady blend of gangster epic, family saga, and martial arts fantasy.” (YES)
I often regret that so many Fantasy novels confuse world-building with settings : for the reader to be truly immersed, merely crafting a place cannot be enough : one needs a complex political landscape, an History – completed with a mythology if we’re lucky – not to mention living languages including expressions, traditions, laws. Kekon, the imaginary country of Jade City – inspired by Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Okinawa – checks all these boxes.
Janloon, the capital city and heart of the story, feels equally magical and real, I was there, instantly, from the very first page. Indeed the many well-thought details make this vivid, ruthless world ring true.
Janloon, a growing city that stands proud, decades after an Independence War that saw the jade bearers – the powerful Green Bones – took the future into their hands.
Janloon, a city divided between two clans : No Peak and The Mountain.
Jade City is, at heart, a saga of family duty, and the family you’ll fall in love with – just so you know, flaws and all – is the ruling family of No Peak, the Kauls. The old alliance between No Peak and The Mountain, necessary to outmatch the colonizers during the war, is slowly crippling, and the tension keeps growing, keeping you glued to your book, frantically turning the pages…
… until you realize that everything is fair game and you’d best keep your heart in check.
Too often Fantasy novels constructed with multiple POV force you to admit early on that some POVs capture your interest much more than others. I swear, I didn’t feel anything approaching during most of Jade City but rather, I kept thinking NO NO THIS ONE IS MY FAVE every time the POV changed. Every. Damn. Time. I did grow more attached to one character in particular – and my friends won’t be surprised in the slightest – but it does not mean that I resented the parts spent through the eyes of other characters. NEVER.
And that can be explained quite easily when we know that all the characters are fleshed-out, three dimensional and utterly fascinated me.
Lan, Hilo, Shae, Anden, to name the main ones. They all have this little something special that made me truly invested in their life. None of them are Manichean and we can’t always condone their actions. They’re wonderfully grey and I loved them deeply all the more.
Moreover, the family dynamics are COMPLEX and so HEARTFELT and GENUINE and YES, I need to yell about it because that’s SO RARE?
● Lan, the Pillar, is a kind and measured leader but struggles to live up to his granddad tremendous expectations : can he harmonize the heartbreaking duality inherent to his role as Pillar of No Peak, when his family needs him to be both reasonable and ferocious?
● Hilo, the Horn, leads his Finger and Fists into the brutality of the gang wars with charisma and cunning. On edge, unpredictable, so ruthless and yet so fiercely protective of his family and loved ones (yes, he’s my fave. Don’t judge me. He’s so flawed so of course I adore him) (also I love his humor, I don’t know what that says about me?)
● Shae, the returning daughter who wants no part of the clan life but still cares deeply about her overbearing family, is searching for her identity, torn between her family and her hunger for peace and personal achievement.
● Anden, the adopted son, biracial and gay, who tries not to be ruled by his doubts but lives with the constant fear of following the path of his dead mother’s life – I want to protect him at all costs.
… and so many more. I particularly appreciated that Janloon wasn’t devoid of women. You know, what happens so often in fantasy novels? Plus the main female leads – Shae and in a minor way, Wen – don’t “owe” their development and growth to an attempted rape – overused trope that, again, I can’t stand anymore – and achieve what they want through different ways, which I loved. Sure, Kekon is still a patriarchal and misogynistic society at its core, and it’s still way too hard for men to give away an ounce of their powers, more often than not. Yet they’re here, they matter, they’re not faire-valoir. Thank you for that.
Finally – I always appreciate getting to know the opponents in a novel, because failing that, they often lack the layers needed to make them believable and real characters. Admittedly, few chapters were narrated in their point of view in Jade City, but as far as I’m concerned it was enough to understand their motivations and hence make the plot more complex.
First of all, I wanted to share this excerpt from an interview Fonda Lee gave to Lightspeed Magazine, because it perfectly captured everything that made Jade City so refreshing and unique :
As a second generation Asian American, that means finding inspiration from both Western and Eastern stories. I grew up surrounded and engrossed by Western fiction—Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and so on—stories where there were rarely, if ever, any characters that looked like me and my family members. Only in early adulthood did I start really seeking out fiction from Asian sources—kung fu films, Hong Kong crime dramas, wuxia comic books. I found a lot to love, and that cross-cultural pollination in my brain is a wonderful source of ideas for me. In that sense, I think Jade City is a very Asian-American work.
She added later that she wanted to create a heady blend of gangster epic, family saga, and martial arts fantasy, and to that I say : BRAVO. It was fantastic from start to finish.
I wouldn’t want to spoil your read, and trust me on this, less you know about the plot, more you’ll enjoy Jade City : albeit its instant attractiveness, this novel takes cares of reminding the reader that its world is nasty. People lie, corrupt, kill. If they love so strongly, one should not forget that love isn’t always enough.
Political schemes, violent street war, internal struggles, twists and turns – I was captivated. The sudden changes of rhythm brought an uncertainty, a sentiment of anguish very interesting to the plot, and thus made the reading experience even better. Truly, I loved everything : the slow cunning phases, the fast, nasty fights, the emotional hardships… My heart started beating erratically more than once. I was so invested in the Kaul’s family story, I couldn’t breathe. One should remember when diving in : this gem of a book is harsh, sometimes brutal, and doesn’t shy away from violence. I adored it, but I strongly advise you to look at the content warnings listed below.
That’s not all, though : a world-building so rich wouldn’t be content without the rise of broader issues, such as colonization and war. There’s so much potential to look for in the sequel.
Finally, the writing is compelling, imaginative – see, for example, the names of the different status in the clan, inspired by esoteric titles used by the Chinese Triads but original all the same – and I really enjoyed the dialogues (especially Hilo’s, whose witty remarks made my day).
► The sequel can’t come out soon enough. All-time favorite and highly recommended.
CW – graphic violence, death, cruelty to animals, addiction, drug, mention of sexual child abuse, gore, sex scenes, ableist words unchallenged, racial slur
Interested? You can read the sample chapters on Orbit Books website. You can also take a look at the author’s introduction :