In an alternate world where a small island carries both a magical material and the scions who can wield it, the aftermath of a world war that consumed and wrapped up even the island is a tricky and dangerous time. The city of Janloon on the island of Kekon is a fraught place, with the clans that helped liberate the island kingdom from foreign occupation now the temporal behind-the-scenes powers that rule Janloon and the island of Kekon itself. After years of quiet small scale conflict, however, a change in leadership of the No Peak clan provides their stronger rival, the Mountain Clan, with a chance to push and push their advantage, to do to the No Peak what they have done to several of their smaller rivals already—to conquer it.
Into this scenario we are given a set of characters, primarily from No Peak clan, who must navigate changes in leadership, the return of a black sheep who has been living and working overseas (herself a major viewpoint character), and fateful events revolving around the power of Jade. For, you see, the magical material Jade, which is usually only usable by certain bloodlines, can be wielded by others by use of a rather dangerous drug. And so control of the drug, and the Jade, becomes a front in the conflict between the clans, with Janloon and all of Kekon caught in between.
This is the story of Fonda Lee’s Jade City.
Jade City has been compared to The Godfather with magic by a number of readers and fellow authors. The comparisons and parallels to Puzo’s epic are obvious. The major characters are all gangsters, the conflict is between crime families, the local government are pawns and clients of the gangsters. There are characters thrust into new and unfamiliar roles in the family’s hierarchy, roles that they are sometimes very unsuited to, but because of family duty, they must and need take up those roles. There is rich worldbuilding just within the Clans themselves, how they are organized, how they work, how they do what they do. Gangster families, contra third-rate films, are not disorganized thugs, but rather well organized and well oiled machines, family businesses in the business of illegal activity. Jade City captures all that deftly.
The rich worldbuilding goes beyond the clans as well, and at the base assumptions of the world. The world that we are shown in the novel is, aside from the magical elements (which I will get to in a moment), very much Earth analogues and parallels. Jade City feels like like something akin to a large Singapore, an Eastern Asian-like place that has and had been swept up in conflicts that swept the globe. There are blocs of superpowers still in low grade rivalry around the globe, and so Kekon and Janloon are very small players, aside from the existence of Jade and the drug SN1—are really small fry in the Espenia/Ygutan cold war. Although the parallels are not exact, the Republic of Espenia feels vaguely like America and Western Europe, and Ygutan, less technologically advanced but with large population and large desolate cold regions, feels vaguely like the Soviet Union. The Empire of Shotar, which occupied Kekon before the Many Nations War, feels like an analogue for Imperial Japan.
And then there is the magic, the fantastic element of Lee’s world. (Although, a story without Jade and magic in this alternate world would still be a fantasy novel by my lights, in the manner of Kushner and Sherman’s Swordspoint). In this world, certain people can use the magical material jade in order to enhance themselves. One must be in proximity, usually carrying such jade in order to activate it, and different people have different tolerances and sensitivities for the material. Too, there are a sextet of magical disciplines (Strength, Steel Perception, Lightness, Deflection and Channeling) that one can create with jade, and a Green Bone (as carriers and users of jade are are called) can be stronger or weaker with these different disciplines, although practice and diligence count for much.
In addition to having a Year-Eight student (Andy) as a way to help introduce readers to the magical disciplines of Jade, Lee provides a viewpoint character from outside No Peak, Bero. Bero is a wanna-be low level street operative who wants both Jade and the SN1 drug that will let him, without any bloodline, actually make use of it. So when he gets hold of some Jade and the drug, we get some nice worldbuilding, natural sounding, as Bero discovers the capability that was formerly reserved for Green Bones, for himself. In addition, Bero gives a grunt, street level perspective on the No Peak and Mountain Clan conflict, and also proves the adage that the unexpected and the random can have outsized effects, as Bero’s choices and actions have effects on the entire conflict in a way no one can predict.
I want to call out the maps in the book for praise as well. The two maps, one of Kekon Island, and one of the city of Janloon, are an economy of what the reader needs to orient themselves in a world where the plays and counterplays between the clans range across the city; the map of the city tells the reader exactly what they need to know in a clean and spare style. Even more delightfully, the maps are identified as in-world artifacts, grounding them further in the unreality of the world that Lee has created. I approve of this sort of attention to detail in cartography in novels.
Jade City is sharp, involving, deep, inviting, and richly dense on character and setting. I read through this joy rapidly and with joy. I look forward with eagerness for more stories set in this world and characters.