Review: Jade City

Posted: July 2, 2019 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Fonda Lee, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

JADE CITY by Fonda Lee has been nominated (and won) a number of awards in the past year. I was interested to see if it lived up to the buzz and I am happy to report that it did.

In the city of Janloon, everything is fine. Totally fine. If there’s a black market jade carver that’s been murdered, that happens. If there’s increasing unrest in the streets… well, that’s nothing that Lan, the Pillar of the No Peak clan, can’t handle. As the head of No Peak, Lan controls half of the jade production on the island of Kekon and controls half of the city of Janloon. He’s got bigger things to worry about.

Jade has always been valuable in our world, but in Lee’s it can give you superpowers… or it can kill you. Only those with extensive training (and good genes) can handle wearing jade without descending into madness. Naturally, jade is the key to power in Janloon and the No Peak clan and its rival, the Mountain, exist in a mutally beneficial detente, controlling jade production and patrolling the city with their jade-wearing Green Bone Warriors.

“Shine”, a drug that can allow even those without the training or genetics to use jade, disrupts the delicate balance of power on the island and the Mountain moves aggressively against No Peak. Lan doesn’t have the personality to be a wartime Pillar, but with the help of his younger brother Hilo, the clan’s Horn, and Lan’s sister Shae, the family will try to protect Janloon and their clan, whatever the cost.

Jade, worn or embedded in the body of warriors, is an elegantly simple way to give people superhuman powers. It also makes for intense action sequences that go beyond the typical mafia threats of guns and knives. Additionally, Lee has clearly contemplated the repercussions of something as powerful as jade would spread through society. What happens to those who have ‘jade immunity’ or are particularly sensitive to jade? What happens when foreign powers want to create the same effects for their soldiers? I’m looking forward to the release of JADE WAR to see how Lee traces these questions through to her second book.

JADE CITY is an elegantly crafted tale of family and loyalty, with a well-thought out magic system and compelling characters that make it a must-read

JADE CITY benefits from its structure as well, with two POVs from people in the heart of the clan (Lan & Hilo) and two from people with close connections but who share an outsider’s perspective (Shae & a young cousin, Anden). I especially liked a fifth POV from a character that is unrelated to the clan that gives us a completely different take on what’s happening in Janloon. Fantasy books can often be stuffed with POV characters–it’s an easy way to jump around the story and give the reader a sense of progress. However, those POVs can often end up feeling fairly interchangeable. Here, though, each perspective is thoughtfully crafted and distinct enough that it adds value to the story.

Lee’s characters also share a satisfying depth. For example, Hilo, the thuggish Horn, is more than a set of muscles. While he excels as a warrior, readers also see his commitment to his family and tradition, his desire to please his brother, his rivalry with his sister, and his struggle to be what the clan needs him to be. Shae begins the novel as the only sibling who has tried to live outside the clan structure, leaving Janloon to attend school in a foreign country. When she returns, she struggles to hold on to her own personality and wishes against the heavy, all-enveloping needs of the clan.

JADE CITY would be an entertaining read if it was just about a mafia war and flights of kung fu fancy. Luckily for us, Fonda Lee has given us those things AND some great characters and world building that take the story to the next level.

Don’t miss this one, folks.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: Yes, moderate swearing.
  • Violence: Plenty of fighting and people keep getting limbs or ears chopped off.
  • Sex: Several scenes with fairly explicit detail. Allusions to child pornography and abuse.

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