by Fonda Lee
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
A finalist for this year's Nebula Award, as well as many others, Fonda Lee's Jade City is an alternate world fantasy, somewhat of a cross between urban and mythic fantasy, with strong Asian influences. It is set on the fictional island nation of Kekon, a few decades following the Many Nations War, which I suspected, and an interview with the author confirmed, is a stand in for our World War 2. Other countries mentioned can be compared to ones in our world; I think Espenia=United States, Ygutan=China, Shotaria=Japan. Descriptions of Kekon, and its history before and during the war, made me think of the Philippines, although it may be completely fictional, or a combination of other island nations. There is technology equivalent to our 1960s-70s. Cars and televisions, rudimentary computers, but no cell phones, no internet, at least not yet. There will be sequels. Jade War has been announced for some time next year, but it's not available for pre-order yet. I'll give an overview of the story, then end this page with comments explaining why I probably won't continue with the Green Bone Saga.
The fantasy element is the jade itself, a type found only on Kekon, described as bioenergetic. To those trained in its use, it can bestow unique abilities which can be channeled through the body and mind. In fact, Channeling is one of the six disciplines, along with Strength, Steel, Perception, Lightness, and Deflection. Not all Kekonese can master those elements, but those who can become Green Bones. Those who can't are stone-eyes, and there are other ethnicities who have immigrated who cannot indulge, although a new drug called SN1 (street named Shine) might enable them to do so. SN1 was developed by Espenia, technically an ally of Kekon, for use by its military, but most Green Bones are opposed to its use by outsiders, even opposed to the sale of jade to others. Many Green Bones are members of various clan groups, equivalent to Mafia crime families, others go into other lines of work, utilizing their jade sensitivity for medicine and other professions, some enter religious orders. There is a hierarchy within the clans, from the headman (Pillar), his chief warrior/enforcer (Horn), and the Horn's underlings, Fists and Fingers. Each clan's Weather Man oversees business dealings and investments, with Lantern Men (not Green Bones themselves, but allied with a particular clan) running the businesses. There are areas supposed to be neutral, such as the ports and shipping, but each clan is always maneuvering for advantage. Governmental agencies are also supposed to be neutral. No Green Bone can serve in political office ("Gold or Jade, never together"), but as with the Lantern Men, council members can be allied with a clan.
The two clans prominent in the plot are No Peak, which has diversified into real estate and manufacturing, and The Mountain, which controls gambling and related endeavors. It seems clear the author wants the reader to identify with No Peak as the more honorable clan, but they are still a criminal enforcement organization. It is likely we are only shown the worst elements of The Mountain, but several within No Peak aren't much more sympathetic. Each exacts tributes from businesses in their territory, and uses intimidation and coercion to persuade others to switch allegiances. The few characters I liked in the beginning did things later that reduced their stature in my eyes. If you like gangster related stories (The Godfather), or Hong Kong crime dramas, or wuxia fantasies, you may like this. Those aren't high on my preference list, so this was not as enjoyable for me. It's a lot longer than it needed to be, considering it's just the beginning of a series. Too many elements and character arcs hinted at, that could have been concluded in a more tightly written and plotted book. It's an interesting idea, with a unique fantasy twist, mixed with familiar elements. I can say I'm not sorry I read it, but it just didn't wow me. I gave it just 3 stars on Goodreads. With the many award nominations it has received it is clear many liked this more than I did. As I've had to say too often lately, your mileage may vary.
UPDATE, 11/4/18: Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, in a tie with Victor LaValle's The Changeling.
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