Fonda Lee, Jade City (2017)

This novel has already garnered a lot of buzz, and it was quite interesting to see someone combine wuxia movies and Hong Kong gangster flicks with the trappings of fantasy novels. I didn’t love this book unreservedly, but it’s definitely worth reading.

The island of Kekon is the only source of jade in the world, and it’s jade that gives the island’s Green Bone warriors their powers of agility, speed, strength and perception. Decades ago they used those powers to win Kekon its freedom from colonial overlords; now the two crime families who worked together for independence are on the brink of all out war as Kekon’s economy has taken off. The scions of the youngest generation of the Kaul family–cautious Pillar Lan, brash Horn Hilo, and failed future Weather Man Shae, who walked away from her family once and just returned, as well as their adopted cousin Anden–face an uncertain new world in which they will be tested by the Ayt clan, led by a ruthless female Pillar whose plans encompass a stage far larger than the island.

There’s no getting around the fact that this book is long, probably too long, as has been the case with most adult novels I’ve read recently. Lee, however, avoids the soggy middle problem which often afflicts these novels by having the plot take a sharp left turn that I won’t spoil. It works well, and it sets the front half of the novel up as a kind of golden age in retrospect, which is interesting.

I grew up in New Jersey, so I have a pretty high degree of automatic side-eye for the idea of competent and/or even moderately honorable mobsters, but it’s a fantasy novel, so I’ll give Lee that one for free. The real problem with the book from my perspective is that the female characters (Shae, Ayt Madashi, and Hilo’s fiancé Wen) are much more interesting than the male characters. I’m also not wild about the fact that Anden is a bundle of tragic queer and tragic half-breed stereotypes rolled into a ball, and let’s remember that this is a novel that Lee constructed: queerness is “unlucky” and therefore only okay if people don’t talk about or “flaunt” it on Kekon because she decided that Kekon would be this way.

All that being said, I grew to like the characters quite a lot by the end, and there’s a good deal of sharp-edged hilarity in the brief glimpses we get of Kekon from the white not!European perspective towards the end of the novel. I’m definitely also interested to see where the story goes, and even if that turns out to be a place I don’t like, Lee’s bold story and world-building are a boon for the genre as a whole. We need more books like this, and it deserves its success.