Jade City: A Rare Gem of a Novel

This could probably be a pretty short review. I’m half tempted to simply write ‘go read this book’ and call it a day. But I suppose I should work a little harder than that, and actually explain why I feel this way about the book. After all, it is clear while reading Jade City that it was a project of passion and painstaking craft; the end result deserves more than a sentence in review.

I think it makes sense to start with the premise. As described by the author, Fonda Lee, Jade City is essentially The Godfather with magic and kung fu” and honestly, that description hits the nail pretty well on the head (and for me basically sells the whole thing right from the start).

Add in a sort of post World War II modern, vaguely Asian setting, and you pretty much have all the ingredients for the novel’s success listed and defined. Each of these ingredients serve as excellent hooks, and any one of them draw the reader in, but as with all good recipes, I think it’s how these things are mixed together, which really causes the book to shine.

The two main things that immediately stood out to me upon reading Jade City was just how tightly plotted the novel is, and how deep the world building goes. From the very first scene, we’re exposed to the undercurrents of political unrest which will shape the main intrigue plot, a systematic but not overly (faux) scientific magic system, and some pretty exciting and harrowing action from the point of view of a seemingly minor character (who just keeps happening bumble into more and more important plot points). This could have been an absolute disaster of a first chapter in its ambition, but remarkably gets everything across to the reader in a way that draws us in, sets up the basic information that we need to continue forward, and leaves us with enough (and the right) questions to encourage us to continue reading. It really sets the tone perfectly for the novel, as the scenes which follow may not be as action packed, but they rely on the building blocks laid out here to keep the tension building throughout in a way that (to me) never felt slow or dragging.

I mentioned the worldbuilding before, and I’d like to circle back to it as it was certainly a main component of the book which really stood out. In a lot of fantasy novels, I feel like “Worldbuilding” with a capital W is often actually myth building. The author builds the setting and explains current conflicts through legends and history of the world. In a lot of fantasy, these histories are ancient, and there is often a remove of hundreds or even thousands of years between the events of the myths/legends, and the plot we experience. They are related, but there is something of a remove.

I think in a lot of stories that feature this kind of worldbuilding, the remove is (more or less) necessary in order to establish the magnitude of the stakes being set up. The epics we know in the real world are set thousands of years in our past, and so that kind of remove in a fantasy story will naturally give a kind of epic quality to the events we see in the story.

By comparison, the events of Jade City feel very young. We get a few interludes which give three parts of an old myth, but most of the history makers in this world are still alive, aging badly, and worse, are failing to live up to the myth and legend which has come up around them. To me, this was a nice contrast from more traditional fantasy, and I think only served to bring the drama of the story closer to its main actors, the No Peak clan, and specifically the Kaul family.

The next thing that stood out to me about the worldbuilding, I said in a tweet so I’ll just post that here:

“I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’m pretty much digging it. For such a deep setting it’s pretty quickly paced and (at least to me) there doesn’t seem to be much filler. I also really think the setting would make a fun board game or RTS. There so many definitions of winning.”@jamesweber16

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I got about 75% of the way through this book and realized: “If so-and-so does this, that would be a satisfying ending to the story, but also if so-and-so does this, so would that.”

And of course, the ending was completely different from either of those things and still (to me) completely satisfying.

I attribute this to Lee’s story telling, but also must acknowledge that it was the depth of the world which provided the scaffolding for her to accomplish this. Each of the main characters seemed to have their own aspect of the world in which they were striving to create change, but all interlocked, and no one plot seemed to take the backseat to any other.

Finally, despite all that I’ve been going on about the worldbuilding and the setting, this story is primarily a family drama. The interpersonal relationships were what really drove so much of the tension in the story, but I was never frustrated by this. In a lot of family conflicts, issues that effect the character’s motivations can sometimes amount to very little more than shallow squabbles which any reasonable person would ‘suck it up’ and move forward from, especially when faced with world defining problems, and it can be very frustrating to see them fail to make these changes.

This was not the case in Jade City. The family conflicts seem deeply rooted in past history, and given the lives these characters have had to lead, seems completely reasonable. But Lee takes it one step further and also shows how they are still a family, and despite everything, seem to have a real familial love (or at least respect) for each other. I pretty much ate these scenes up (as well as all the others if I’m honest) and they were some of the scenes that stuck out to me the most.

TLDR

Anyway, please give this one a shot. There is so much more I could have written about but honestly, it would probably take more words than the book has in it already, so I think any readers still here should just go forth and read it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Jade War, and can’t wait to gush more about that here later.

If you’ve read Jade City, please let me know your thoughts in the comments. What did you love? Was there anything you hated? I’m excited to talk about this one.

Thanks again for reading! See you next time.

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