Jade City is my adult debut and it also marks my foray into epic fantasy. It came about from watching kung fu movies and thinking, “You know, I’m a long-time student of martial arts, so why can’t I punch through concrete or fly thirty feet into the air yet?” I started envisioning a society where magical jade granted special abilities to warriors with the proper training and bloodline, and the idea merged with my longstanding enthusiasm for mafia stories to become this modern gangster family saga. It’s the most intense, ambitious thing I’ve ever written, and there’s more to come.
— Fonda Lee
Some of my fond memories of growing up was watching plenty of Hong Kong martial arts films as a kid. With the advent of home video, I discovered the gangster genre, which included of course healthy doses of John Woo movies, starring his muse Chow Yun Fat. I also became fans other directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. Growing up, my favorite pieces of American Cinema was and is to this day The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
Fonda Lee and her first non-YA novel Jade City blends together so much of what I loved in movies from my youth: wuxia, heroic bloodshed, gangsters, and brotherhood. It gives us a world that is heavily influenced by Asian cinema and culture without it being an entirely Asian specific culture or country. What comes out is an original fantasy alternate world that feels like our own yet is incredibly unique and fresh.
Jade is a vaulable substance that allows certain members of society to channel magical properties that enhance strength, stamina, and reflexes. Jade users are known as Green Bones and at times their powers are almost legendary. But in reality they can only can use it properly after very long and thorough training. For the untrained the allure of jade can be seductive and even touching it can have addictive properties, instilling a lust to possess and wear it. Those that are properly trained can become strong fighters and when in single combat duels or other fights to the death, the victor will take their dead opponent’s jade, making them even more powerful.
The city of Janloon is a post “War of All Nations” city on the island of Kekon that has power divided by two ruling clans. Though on the surface, it may seem as these are criminal organizations they are responsible for keeping the peace. They are regarded as protectors of their territories and of the people who live in it. It is almost feudal. Kekon was once colonized by foreigners and goes to say that their is quite a bit of prejudice against foreigners and especially those who are half-blooded.
The Kaul Family run the No Peak Clan and they are highly regarded with its elderly and ailing patriarch, the Torch, a hero to the people. His grandson, Lan, is the current Pillar of the clan, the leader. His younger hot-headed brother, Hilo, is the Horn, the head of the troops, or fists. They maintain a steady peace in their territories. Their biggest rival, the Ayt family of the Pillar of the Mountain Clan is its biggest rival and has aspirations of total control of the city. Within this conflict is family struggles of power, how those who have it don’t want it and those with the greatest power potential is groomed for great things at a young age.
The rivalry between factions come to a head when gang war breaks out and effects the whole city. Battles rage in streets for territory and shops and restaurants are even at play for the loyalty of their proprietors. Within that war, heroes, such as they are, will sacrifice and suffer loss. Bloodshed rains down by duels of bladed weapons, talon knives, or moonblades as they are called. And what gangster epic of heroic bloodshed would be complete without gunplay?
One running theme in the book is of people having to heed a call to a duty they are reluctant to assume. Some family members find themselves in situations where they doubt their ability to lead but because of family loyalty and honor they must. Shae, the young sister of the family is reluctantly drawn back in to the family affairs after leaving for some years and even abandoning her jade. Lan must come to the grips of handling a war that he was not meant to fight since he is not considered a wartime Pillar and must earn the respect of his soldiers. Hilo will later have to assume more responsibility than he had ever wanted or asked for.
The world that Fonda Lee creates is a rich one filled with history and atmosphere. It has a unique usage of titles and honorifics for its large cast of characters. Frankly I wished there was an appendix in the book. But that richness is what makes the world so immersive as well. This book may be heavily influenced by Asian cinema, but I of course kept imagining it as a perfect venue for an anime adaptation with a jazzy soundtrack like Cowboy Bebop’s. Jade City’s world is definitely one I’d like to visit again. And since this is the first of a planned trilogy and the second book Jade War is forthcoming I will gladly plunge into this it all over again. Highly Recommended.