Jade City by Fonda Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Fonda Lee's 2017 Jade City is a sprawling, epic fantasy that is full to the brim with originality, brilliant world building, and memorable characters who feel real in their strengths and flaws. Set on the fictional Kekon Island, we follow the saga of the Kaul family and their "No Peak" clan. If you'd have told me that I'd become completely engrossed in a fantasy novel about a jade cartel and cartel warfare, I'd have told told you that you were crazy. But here we are.
The Kaul family, led by its young Pillar, Kaul Lan, hovers on the edge of instability. While Kaul Lan is an enlightened leader, his Horn (the enforcer) younger brother, Kaul Hilo, has the reputation of being short-tempered and reckless. Their father is deceased, their ambivalent sister Kaul Shae is, as the novel opens, returning from a jade-less self-imposed exile/time abroad, and their rather addled grandfather, Kaul Sen, the Torch, is elderly and in sharp decline. Emery Anden, a Kaul by adoption, is a senior at the Kaul Dushuron Academy, a prep school that largely turns out the future members of the Kaul family's No Peak Clan. Their business leadership is managed by a Weatherman, one Yun Doru, who early on seems to have duplicitous intentions, adding to the worries borne by Kaul Lan. Dipping outside the immediate family, Maik Tar and Maik Kehn, Kaul Hilo's longtime friends, are the Fists of the Horn, providing the strong-arm tactics needed to maintain the social "order." Kekon's opposing clan, the Mountain Clan, is led by the formidable Ayt Madashi, a woman who upon her father's death killed off the entire upper administration of the Mountain Clan (before his funeral, no less) in order to seize unquestioned control of the clan as its Pillar.
At the heart of the story of Kekon and the jade cartels lies the jade itself, which imbues the so-called "Green Bone" wearers with power. The more jade worn, the more power wielded. But this power comes at a price: too much jade can drive the wearer mad. The Kaul Academy, where Anden will soon graduate, seeks to train young Green Bones to wield jade safely. Some on Kekon are stone-eyes- those who are unaffected by jade and unable, without intervention (more on that account below) to wield jade power. The fickle heritability of Green Bone ability is demonstrated by the Maik brothers' beautiful stone-eye sister, Maik Wen, lover of Kaul Hilo. Of course, the stone-eyes of the world envy those that can wield jade power and thus it's no surprise that a dangerous illegal drug, Shine, has been created to allow stone-eyes to wield some jade power and Green Bones to wear more jade than they normally can or should.
As the novel opens, the balance of power between the two clans on Kekon are tipping in favor of the Mountain as a plot for control of jade and Shine begins to unfold. The pacing of the novel is such that the 560 pages fly by. The struggles of the Kauls evolve like a train wreck that steadily accelerates toward the inevitable collision between the No Peak and Mountain clans. And it's a testament to Lee's skills as a writer that some of the fight scenes, which I normally dislike, are truly breathtaking. I'm eagerly moving on to the newly released Jade War to see where Lee takes us, and follow the story of Kaul Shae, my favorite Kaul family member.
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