I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.
The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.
One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.
As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.
The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.
And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.
In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.