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Jade City by Fonda Lee5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIt ain’t the tropes, it’s how you use them. Fonda Lee’s first adult fantasy novel went on to win the World Fantasy Award, and few books have deserved that honor so richly. Jade City is the launch of a trilogy with all the intense drama, compelling character work, and complex world building of A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a much tighter narrative and a sustained level of intensity and reader absorption many books attempt but few achieve. Lee draws influence from east and west, from popular culture, movies and books, from the real-life exploits of dynastic families going all the way back to the Medicis. And she pours it all into a flying sidekick of a novel.

Lee has imagined a modern secondary world. The island of Kekon and its bustling capital city of Janloon draw inspiration from Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, and so on, but it isn’t meant to stand in for any single one of them. For fans of Asian cinema, it feels like an instantly recognizable setting. But if that were the only thing going for it, there would be little to no appeal to any audience apart from that fandom. A couple of things in particular give Jade City its universal quality. First, the notion of living in a place on the cusp of change, of social and political forces driving inexorably toward chaos with almost nothing the average person can do except keep out of the way. And there are Lee’s characters, on the one hand crime fiction archetypes, but on the other, deeply wounded and sympathetic people who, despite their power, are less in command of their fates than they’d like to be and who survive by loyalty and love for one another and commitment to their ideals.

The Kaul family run the No Peak clan, one of Janloon’s two most powerful syndicates. Their chief rival, the Mountain clan, is run by the Ayt family, and their clan leader, known as the Pillar, is Ayt Madashi, a woman so ruthless she simply murdered her way to the top. The Pillar of No Peak is Kaul Lan, a young but temperate and thoughtful leader who inherited his position from his grandfather, the family patriarch Kaul Sen. But Lan has great respect for the old man, and still seeks his counsel when he thinks it’s necessary. The story opens at a time when the younger generation of Kauls have taken command, and dangerous times are ahead.

Central to nearly every aspect of life, not just to the clans but all of Kekonese society, is jade. This is a natural resource only found on Kekon, and it’s not merely the bedrock of the island nation’s economy, but a status symbol held in reverence in Kekonese religion and to their cultural identity. Jade exerts such a powerful influence on the human body — foreigners refer to it as “bioenergetic” — that only descendants of aboriginal Kekonese and settlers together have the genetic makeup to handle it. And even they need years of physical and mental training to use it properly. Naturally, such training academies are run by the clans, and successful graduates become Green Bones — most of whom go on to join the clans.

The story’s central conflict, like so many organized crime stories that have come before, starts with one clan (in this case, the Mountains) moving to take over the other. It’s been common practice to sell jade overseas, along with a designer drug called Shine, which allows anyone to tolerate jade’s overpowering effects and wield the powers usually reserved for trained Green Bones. But the Mountain wants a monopoly. And when an unexpected event results in tragedy for No Peak, the stage is set for an all-out clan war that could have global impact.

Lee draws much storytelling influence from not only Asian crime sagas — like the action movies of John Woo and Johnnie To, or the yakuza films of Takeshi Kitano or Kenji Fukasaku — but such Western stories as The Godfather, The Sopranos, Peaky Blinders and others. Lee has no hesitation in employing all the familiar gangster tropes, but she brings life and energy to them in the way she applies them to fresh ideas about building a secondary fantasy world influenced by history. We see hints of the larger world in the background, the lingering effects of a world war causing Kekonese society to have become mostly isolationist and xenophobic, but taking tentative steps towards a more globalist future that will surely overtake them if they can’t adapt.

Moreover, Lee has a gift for turning archetypes into people. We feel for these characters, deep in our bones we feel for them, even the ones we wouldn’t be too happy to meet on the streets. Kaul Hilo, the family hothead, is Lan’s brother and his Horn, the underboss who commands the clan’s soldiers on the street. He’s not respected by Kaul Sen and the clan’s old guard for his impetuous nature, but the brutish exterior hides a man capable of deep love and loyalty to those he holds close. The way Lee has Hilo thrust into an unforeseen position by circumstances, and how he has to adapt new skills and a type of command entirely at odds with his experience and temperament, is a master class in character development I haven’t seen in fantasy since Tyrion Lannister.

Meanwhile, Kaul Shea is No Peak’s Michael Corleone character, the prodigal child. Shea, as the story opens, has no desire to be part of the clan, and has returned to Jonloon after years overseas, scandalizing the family with a foreign education and boyfriend. She takes an apartment of her own and applies for white collar jobs, as if she weren’t from a family so wealthy and influential that anything could be handed to her for the asking. Hilo still has a hard time hiding his resentment, but Lan doesn’t insist she come back. But he does ask for her professional help in a particular matter that uncovers something deeply criminal. And if it seems like Shea’s path back to the No Peak clan is a bit too abrupt, it makes sense if you consider that maybe, despite what she was telling herself, her heart wasn’t as into being fully independent like she thought.

Finally, there is Anden Emery, a boy adopted by patriarch Kaul Sen after his mother died from overexposure to jade, who’s finishing up his final year at the academy. Hilo has big plans for Anden. But even though he’s showing great skills at school, Anden is troubled by persistent feelings that he doesn’t truly belong, that the shame of his mother’s death taints both how others see him, as well as his own ability to safely handle jade. He will end up playing a pivotal role in the upcoming conflict. But whether this will overcome his insecurities or confirm that they were all valid is a frightening prospect that he can’t predict, and he knows he can’t avoid.

Yes, crime sagas rooted in interpersonal family dynamics have a long and battle-hardened history in popular culture, but we’re now at a time when no discussion of these stories, either in or outside of fantasy, will be complete without including the Green Bone Saga. In recent years, both fantasy and science fiction have been fond of found-family stories, where the truest connections we make are those we choose. But many times, we don’t have the luxury of that choice. For the Kauls in Jade City, the family you got is the family you get. You can mend fences and heal broken relationships, but many times you can’t, and in the end it’s all in how you survive.

Followed by Jade War.