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Jade War by Fonda Lee4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMiddle novels of trilogies come loaded with expectations, and if they disappoint their readers, it’s either that they’ve made the mistake of simply repeating what everyone loved about book one, or they’ve failed to offer a compelling story of their own, preferring instead to serve as a set-up exercise for the grand finale in book three.

Happily, Fonda Lee’s Jade War avoids both of these common pitfalls. Opening roughly two years after the violent clan war of Jade City, and unfolding over the course of about three and a half more years, Jade War follows the first book’s logical progression of events and consequences. Lee expands her scope globally. Kaul Hilo of the No Peak clan has struck an informal truce with his arch-enemy, Ayt Madashi of the Mountain clan, but their unresolved enmity still casts a shadow over the bustling port of city of Janloon. The Mountains still have every intention of wiping out No Peak, and they’re in a better position both financially and politically to do it. But there are other pressing concerns keeping another clan war, or at least an open war, at bay.

War has broken out between two large global superpowers. A small region of the nation of Shotar called Oortoko has launched a rebellion against their government. The neighboring country of Ygutan, eager to realize their imperialist ambitions, has thrown its support behind the rebels. The faraway Republic of Espenia, in turn, is supporting the Shotarian government. The entire situation is causing a lot of alarm, to put it mildly, on the island of Kekon and the city of Janloon in particular, and it isn’t just the increased presence of the Espenian navy in nearby waters.

The Kekonese are an isolationist and xenophobic people, mainly thanks to the legacy of the Many Nations War, during which the Kekonese endured a brutal Shotarian occupation. But it’s impossible to resist the coming global economic future, and as the world’s sole source of bioenergetic jade, Kekon cannot afford to become any one foreign nation’s pawn or vassal state. The No Peak clan has political ties to the Espenians, and Kaul Shae’s history of living in Espenia and even providing their government with intelligence in the years before she came back to the clan and became its Weather Man is going to haunt her. The Espenians want more jade for their military, while banning its use among their civilian population. Meanwhile, the Mountain clan is building factories in Ygutan to manufacture Shine, the designer drug that allows non-Kekonese non-Green Bones to use jade without feeling its dangerous effects.

As if that wasn’t enough, a new enemy is getting bolder. Jade smuggling has exploded since all mining was shut down during events in Jade City. And the smugglers are becoming more brazen — in particular a blustering, odious creep named Zapunyo who’s lording it over the nearby Uwiwan islands and styling himself the equal of the clan’s Pillars, like any ambitious small-timer who’s seen a chance to take his shot. A temporary truce has No Peak and the Mountain, at least publicly, going after the smuggling trade that’s harming both the Kekonese economy as well as its national security. But the thing is, if you whip a dog hard enough, eventually he’s going to bite.

If The Godfather was a chief inspiration for Jade City, then Jade War does feel very much like The Godfather Part II, in which being a crimelord is really just a leveled-up exercise in being a businessman and politician. It’s a world of backroom negotiations, of quid-pro-quo dealmaking that may or may or may not be honored. It’s about having to ask your allies to compromise their ethics to help you achieve your ends, while worrying which of them might betray you. And it’s about the wisdom in not underestimating an enemy simply because he doesn’t appear strong.

If you’re here for the characters, they remain just as compelling, powerful, vulnerable and heartbreaking as they were before. Hilo and his sister Shae, who have always butted heads, push their interpersonal conflicts about as far as they can go, all the while reluctantly understanding how much they need the balance they provide each other. And Anden Emery, now living and studying overseas in the Espenian city of Port Massy after rejecting his jade and alienating Hilo, might finally be able to find a way to return to his cousin’s good graces, but it will require great sacrifice. Nothing any of these characters does comes at anything other than a devastating price, especially the things they must do to protect those they love and preserve the safety of their nation. Power is a trap. You can’t extricate yourself, and you wouldn’t even if you could. The saying is that all’s fair in love and war, but it can’t help feeling unfair when love and war are the same.

Followed by Jade Legacy.