Jade City by Fonda Lee

November 9, 2017


Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their 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.

Now that October is over, I need a bit of a break from horror. Time for a crime thriller with a distinctly Eastern flavour and a razor sharp fantastical edge. Since the end of a war decades past, the power in the vast metropolis of Janloon has split between the clans. The two largest groups are the No Peak and the Mountain.  Both groups seek control of the jade market. This rare substance enhances abilities in the local population like strength, perception and defence to superhuman levels. Outsiders are not able to wield the stone, only the Kekonese have the natural immunity that allows prolonged use of jade. This historic monopoly has ensured Kekon and Janloon’s importance but now a drug nicknamed Shine has appeared on the streets. It allows non-Kekonese to wear jade without fear of fatal side effects. Tensions mount and the cold war between the clans escalates. The fragile peace that has existed for years begins to crumble.

Brothers Lan and Hilo Kaul run the No Peak clan. Hilo is the Horn, the street boss, the top enforcer responsible for maintaining control over the men and women under his command. The low-level clan members are known as Fingers. The Fingers report to the Fists and the Fists report to the Horn. Above all of them is The Pillar. Lan is the Pillar of No Peak. He rules the entire clan, defining strategy and ultimately controlling all clan business.

There was something about Lan that reminded me of Stringer Bell from The Wire. Lan craves a respectability and legitimacy. He appreciates the clans promote loyalty and tradition, but he is sick of the violence.  Especially constant friction between No Peak and the Mountain. From the outside Lan always appears composed and focussed, but he is plagued by an inner turmoil that threatens to devour him. This juxtaposition is fascinating to watch. Lan is beating his head against a brick wall. He wants to do right by all the people that rely in him but those are the very ones who refuse to change and embrace something new.

Hilo, as befitting his title of Horn, is far more demonstrative and physical. When things go wrong he is violent and quick to anger. Years of training and the use of jade has made Hilo a living weapon. At first glance he appears carefree and happy but there is another side to his personality that is entirely ruthless. Hilo relishes the opportunity to unleash his magically enhanced skills.

Finally, there is Shae, Lan and Hilo’s younger sister. She has spent time away from Janloon, away from jade, and away from the never-ending clan wars. Coming back to a city she thought she left behind is jarring, and no matter how hard she tries to avoid it, she is drawn back into the family business. She feels bound by the traditions that rule her life. Shae wants to make her own way in the world, but she is a Kaul and family always comes first.

The thing that really struck about the characters in Jade City is their depth. The Kaul family are all broken in one way or another. Lan wants nothing but peace, Hilo can see nothing but war. Shae wants to escape her entire culture. Watching these flawed individuals bounce off one another makes for a riveting read. There are rivalries, arguments and plots aplenty. The stakes for the family couldn’t be higher. If the No Peak clan falls it will mean death for them all. It’s quite the motivator as it turns out.

The world building in Jade City is first class.  You can tell the author has considered every aspect of her creation with great care. There is a very specific structure to Kekonese society and the narrative is full of throwaway lines that provide insight into everything from religion and industry, to politics and even the royal family. The culture that exists is predominately because of the stone that they mine, everything else revolves around that trade. The mix of crime and fantasy elements works particularly well. The only thing I think is missing is more detail regarding the other countries, those without jade, who eye the tiny island nation with envious eyes. This is a minor complaint however. This in the first book in a series, there will be plenty of time to learn more about the rest of this world.

Jade City is Fonda Lee’s adult fiction debut and it is an absolutely blistering read. The characters are perfectly three dimensional. The plot is thrilling and the action sequences are damn near perfect. I went into Jade City cold. I knew nothing about the author, I knew little about the premise, but I found myself relishing every page, every interaction. I’d love to see this transfer to the big screen. It could be astounding. The fights between the Green Bone warriors would be truly spectacular. Just reading the final battle in the novel was breath-taking, seeing it on a cinema screen has the potential to be truly mesmerizing. All I need to decide is who would be in my dream cast.

I cannot recommend Jade City highly enough. I’m a huge fan of films like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled. Try to imagine blending those films together but replacing all the gunplay with knife fights between enhanced humans. If that sounds cool, then this is the novel for you. I need book two of this series to be delivered to me immediately, I have to know what happens next.

I really wanted a musical recommendation to accompany Jade City that managed to properly capture the scope of the novel. Street crime, gang wars, politics and even a little mysticism all with a Far Eastern flavour. There could really be only one choice. I ended up going for a classic, the soundtrack to Akira by Geinoh Yamashirogumi. I just feels like such a good fit. Take my word for it. Listen to one whilst reading the other. I’ll guarantee that you’ll enjoy it.

Jade City, book one in The Green Bone Saga, is published by Orbit and is available now.

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