Women’s Book March: Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

If John Woo had directed Goodfellas instead of Martin Scorsese, and added a generous portion of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style martial arts, he might have come up with something like Jade City. This book is a crime drama, a generational epic, and a martial arts fantasy rolled into one, and it is so much fun.

Ever since the island nation of Kekon won its freedom from a colonial power, two clans have ruled over the capital city of Janloon, and by extension most of the island. The clans maintain power through a complex network of tribute-paying businesses, council ties, and investments, but on the street, that rule is enforced by jaded warriors called Green Bones. And by jaded, I don’t mean world-weary: in this universe, jade can endow people with superhuman strength, speed, and godlike senses, but only after years of rigorous training can they control these powers.

The story centers on the Kaul family, the ruling family of the No Peak clan. The book had a bit of a slow start for me as it introduced the three main Kaul siblings–Lan, the Pillar of the clan; Hilo, his brother and military right hand; and Shae, their estranged sister, who has sworn off wearing jade after living abroad, much to the chagrin of the family. However, once Lee finishes grounding us in the world and the characters, the story dug its teeth into me and didn’t let go.

Jade City is a masterful illustration of the adage, “What is plot but action and character? What is character but plot personified?”. As the three Kaul siblings are drawn into a struggle with the opposing Mountain clan, first for control of Janloon, and then to preserve the heart of No Peak, every event and its consequences are driven by the characters’ motivations, actions, and the effects that stem from them in a way that feels both inevitable and surprising.

Like both the gangster and martial arts films it takes inspiration from, Jade City doesn’t have a totally happy resolution in the end: not all the characters are left standing, and those that survive are battered both emotionally and physically by the preceding events in ways that will definitely have repercussions in the sequel, Jade War.

My edition of Jade City also contained an author interview with Fonda Lee where she goes into some of the inspirations behind the book. She wanted to create an explanation for the seemingly supernatural abilities of martial artists in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and found a natural (or supernatural?) source in jade, a gem already culturally significant in China and other parts of East Asia.

By having jade confer literal magical abilities in her universe, Lee has created a fresh-feeling take on martial arts fantasy set in a notably modern world one step removed from our own. Highly recommended to martial arts and crime drama aficionados in particular.

Already read Jade City? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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