Jade City by Fonda Lee
An intense, smoky, urbane adult fantasy and the first book in the Green Bone Saga. Set on the thrumming island country of Kekon, enemy clans, No Peak and The Mountain, clash in territorial wars whilst harnessing the power of Jade, a dangerous natural resource that with the right training grants its Green Bone users enhanced magical abilities. In this world of gang rivalries and intoxicating Jade power, duty and honour to the clan is everything.
This novel was truly an immersive experience, akin to old-school east Asian gangster movies embroiled in familial Godfather politics. It was brooding, tense and evoked a high-stakes energy I loved. The writing develops the world-building perfectly and meshes it with the plot in an unencumbered way that I found appealing.
I thought the setting was incredibly rich and the characterisation was altogether strong; Lan (the Pillar) esteems honour and peace and family but struggles to affirm his leadership despite his clear skills in that area. Hilo (the Horn) is the epitome of power and charm but with a bullheadedness as to be indiscreet with his emotions. Shae (the Prodigal Daughter?) is calculating and intelligent. She unlike her older brothers sees a life for herself outside the clan. Other standout characters for me were Anden, Bero and Ayt Mada, the latter being a tenacious villainess that really offered something raw and interesting to the story, especially in the way she challenges the wholly male-centric world of Green Bones and clan honour.
Lee creates a stunning balance between the quiet cunning of the writing and the dynamic fight scenes that was thrilling to read. In Jade City, the greener you are, the better! (imagine that) and accumulating more Jade by defeating your victims in battle is an enviable flex. But the writing also changes pace really nicely with some compelling bits of political intrigue.
I have niggling thoughts towards the Abukei people and it goes deeper than the fact that they are an ethnic minority people, native to Kekon who now live as second-class citizens on the island of their heritage. It would be interesting to see if any Abukei characters rise to more prominent roles in the latter books besides housekeeping and Jade-mining but I somehow can’t detach from the idea that their history and presence within the story in essence means that the heroes we are supposed to be routing for, are tacitly or not, colonial supremacists. I feel like the existence of the Abukei people does add to the richness of the setting by giving Kekon a more layered, substantial history, seemingly modelled after real world histories (for added authenticity) but it gave me a dubious feeling nonetheless.
Going into Jade War, I’m hoping they’ll be some bigger players from less prominent places but as a whole, I loved the story and it’s most definitely worth the hype.