Jade City: Review
There is something that just drew me into Jade City, by Fonda Lee. Was it the incredible cover with its jade motifs and striking typeface? Was it the intriguing description that sounded reminiscent of old-school kung fu movies? I have heard great things about Jade City, a Nebula Award finalist and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell's Books, Syfy Wire, and the Verge, and could not wait to jump into this epic. Read on for my review!
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.
Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.
Jade City was everything that I hoped for and more. As soon as I closed the book, I set out to look for a Chinese translation for my dad to read because I knew this would be right up his alley as a Hong Kong immigrant and lover of kung fu and gangster movies. The book touches on so many genres and I believe folks interested in epic political fantasies like Game of Thrones, or fantasy and science fiction with an urban edge, would also respond well to Jade City. Now, let me tell you why.
I must admit that the first 150 pages took me longer than it had any right to. There is an intense amount of world-building that Lee introduces us to in the first third of the book- remember this is a brand new world with its own political and magic systems. There are some clear East Asian influences- and I loved picking up on these based on my time spent in Hong Kong- but Lee needed to build the foundation for jaded warriors and clan politics. She needed to introduce a mythology behind the magic of jade and historical backstory behind the clan's relationships with each other as well with the rest of the world. It is so rich and filled with context that by the end of Jade City, I felt like an expert on Kekon and jade magic. It's not for the faint of heart, but absolutely satisfying once you get the hang of the slang, the societal structure, and the political significance of jade.
What happened after those first 150 pages? Well, there is one specific moment in Jade City where my brain snapped to attention and could not put the book down afterwards. It took me perhaps a month to read the first third of the book and less than two days to complete the rest of it. After the immense amount of world-building that I mentioned above, the plot only goes uphill from there. It's filled with the appropriate amount of tension, action, humor, and most importantly- payoff. The ending is phenomenal and without giving away spoilers, it's not quite a cliffhanger, but it certainly leaves possibilities wide open for book two.
While I absolutely loved the concept of Jade City, no book can succeed without exceptional characters and the Kaul family is no exception. Each of the young Kauls are given time to shine in the spotlight. While they have the immense pressure of being the grandchildren of one of the most reputed warriors in history, they are given really wonderful arcs and character development throughout the book. Lan, Hilo, Shae, and Anden are each so very special in their own way. None of them are perfect. Lee makes sure that we see their flaws, but also gives them enough depth so that their flaws actually mean something and aren't just a blemish on an otherwise super strong jade-wielding warrior.
One more thing I should mention is that Jade City is not a young adult book. I know, I know, the majority of books I read and review are young adult fantasies and while readers of the genre may certainly still enjoy Jade City, it should be known that there is a ton of violence and swearing in this book. I did say that it was a mixture of kung fu and gangster, right? There you go.