Title: JADE CITY
Author: Fonda Lee
Release Date: 2017
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads
Obviously I should have paid greater attention to the descriptions calling this book a “gangster drama” and “kung-fu saga” and “Asian Godfather.” I have little to no interest in mafias, gangs, drugs, or martial arts of any kind. There are also way too many male protagonists in this book for my liking. I concede that this book would probably make an excellent movie, and as a book it wasn’t bad, but I just wasn’t into it.
Fonda Lee has created an original, inventive fantasy. One of the most intriguing things about it, which I was not expecting, is that it is not, like most high fantasies, set in an ambiguously medieval time period. If I had to assign the book a decade I’d say late 80s or early 90s, which was really strange but very intriguing! In Lee’s world, the geological substance of jade grants wearers heightened physical abilities, but only those native to the island of Kekon can utilize it properly. On Kekon, two clans rule the island and its jade, and tension is growing between them as a result of foreign influences.
It’s a truly fascinating premise, but I personally thought that Lee focused on everything and everyone uninteresting. The main POV characters are the head of the No Peak clan, Lan, his strongman and younger brother Hilo, their younger sister Shae, and their adopted brother Anden. Of all these POVs I found Shae’s to be the most compelling, but the narrative continually relegated her to secondary character. The head of the opposing clan, Ayt Mada, is a truly intriguing woman who murdered her way to the top position, yet she only features two or three scenes, every one of which she commands completely. Hilo’s love interest, Wen, was also intriguing, even though her introductory scene features her having sex with Hilo, which I majorly side-eyed. Wen is a “stone-eye” born with a genetic mutation that makes her immune to jade and is considered bad luck by many.
In short, I found the three women in this story more fascinating than any of the male characters, and yet the bulk of the book is focused on the men. This is not a gender-neutral world; I would say the gender dynamics pretty much resemble our own in the 80s and 90s. That’s fine; examinations of gender imbalances in non-Western settings are lacking in fantasy literature. But in my opinion, if Lee were going to craft her world in such a way, the women should have been given more screen-time. I would have loved to have Ayt Mada as a POV character, to learn more about her struggle to lead the clan in a world that only begrudgingly respects women.
This was my main issue with this book and likely the main reason I couldn’t get into it as much as I wanted. But also, plot-wise, I found it kind of dull, though that may be because I personally am not interested by gangster plots. Halfway into the book the pace picked up when Lee gave us an astonishing twist, but after that the pace slowed to a crawl again. There’s also a lot of telling in this book, a lot of exposition, which I’m not always opposed to, but here it just served to slow down the narrative even more. On the bright side, it did make it very easy to understand this brand new world and all of its factions. The learning curve for this fantasy world is not too steep.
I commend Lee for the skill it took to plan and write this lengthy novel, but I just wish she had given more attention to her female characters and picked up the pace of the plot a bit more. Overall, if you’re the type of person who enjoys mafia movies and gangster exploits this might be the book for you, because I do think it’s an objectively admirable book. Unfortunately, I feel only lukewarm about it at best.