science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else. often, though not always, discussed in relation to gender identity and (a)sexuality.
There are four types of stories I cannot resist: caper stories, Gothic horror in space, stories about boxing, and gangster dramas. Those stories don‘t have to be all that original; as long as they work well with all the known ingredients, they will make me happy.
Jade City is an extraordinarily good example of the gangster drama. Inspired by Mafia- and kung fu-films, set in a world were jade is magic, it tells a story about family, honour, and rivalling clans clashing in a bloody war.
The book requires a bit of patience. Fonda Lee takes her time to introduce readers to the world of Kekon and to her main characters. The story really kicks into gear about 30% in, and at the halfway point, all bets are off. Even then, it‘s not all action either: a lot of the clan warfare consists of politicking and strategy meetings. But when the action starts, it‘s epic.
The worldbuilding is thorough. Kekon is a small island, the world‘s only resource of bioenergetic jade. Jade lends heightened senses and strength to its wearers, but just Kekonese with special training have the ability to wield those powers. Other people will be consumed and destroyed. Now a new drug is hitting the streets, SN1, reducing the negative side effects of wearing jade, giving more people the ability to wear the precious stones – including Kekon‘s enemies.
The reader learns a lot about the culture, religion and history of Kekon, a little less about it‘s rivalling states Espenia (which I kept reading as Españia, but I think it‘s supposed to be either Britain or the USA) and Ygutan. The story is set in an alternative 1960s, and Kekon, especially the clans, is still pretty much a man‘s world; it‘s a patriarchal, somewhat racist and deeply superstitious society. The patriarchal structure is addressed head-on; I‘d wished for a bit more direct engagement with Kekonese racism, but maybe that‘s to come in the sequels.
The real highlight of this book are the characters. We follow the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, one of the two most powerful clans of Kekon. Lan is No Peak‘s leader, a kind and reasonable man, but maybe a bit to hesitant to lead his clan into war; Hilo is his younger, charismatic and hot-headed brother, heading the military side of the clan; Shae is the youngest sibling, returning to Kekon after she‘s left the island with her lover. Young Anden is their cousin, still training to once become a powerful jade worrier, a Green Bone. Their rivals are the Mountain, a clan that‘s getting into the business of producing and selling SN1. All characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are compelling, their relationships feel real. I couldn‘t even really pick a favourite, a rare thing when reading stories with multiple POVs. Although the book is certainly violent (it's a gangster drama about clan warfare, after all; people are mutilated and die!), there's no explicit sexual violence; Lee wisely didn't fall into the trap of replacing sexual assault for character development, which is sadly still a thing, especially in fantasy that tries to be "edgy".
I liked the Kauls almost as much as I like a certain Shelby family; and considering how close the Peaky fucking Blinders are to my heart, you can take this as high praise.
The writing is serviceable, if a bit artless. The action scenes are great, the dialogue rings true most of the time, descriptions are sensual and vivid. But Lee also uses some clichés I could‘ve done without: characters are releasing „the breath they didn‘t even know they were holding“, every emotion shows in the characters‘ eyes (something I‘ve never seen happen in real life), and she has the odd habit of opening a sequence of dialogue with an adjective: „Coldly: ‚I have done so.‘“.
But that‘s a minor quibble. While the writing could improve a bit, and the story is at times a tad predictable, the worldbuilding and characters are simply a lot of fun. One element of the epic showdown even managed to surprise me.
The story is set up to be a trilogy, but this works well as a standalone. Nevertheless, I‘m looking forward to the sequel and another meeting with the Kauls. I hope to see more of Anden and Wen, Hilo's wife. I hope to get to know what's up with that unopened letter. And I hope for a few more surprises along the way.