Jade rules the city of Janloon, conferring supernatural powers on those who have the ability to harness it. In the aftermath of war, two clans born out of resistance to foreign powers fight for dominance. Jade City centers on the Kaul siblings, the inheritors of No Peak clan, and their fight for survival and jade.
Jenny convinced me to read this one by gushing about how awesome the worldbuilding is (and it is! More on that in a sec). It was also nominated for a Nebula Award, which often gets me excited about a book.
And that really paid off this time! Jade City is a fantastic book, with a really deep, richly imagined world and great characters. Even though it’s quite a long book it felt like an easy read, and I can’t wait for the sequels.
It’s clear that Fonda Lee really thought about the world she’s creating here, in every detail. For me one of the markers of great worldbuilding is whether the idioms of the world feel natural and organic. A lot of times writers attempt to build their world by throwing in some sayings but they just feel a bit clunky. Here they made sense, and the narrative style is such that the deeper meanings could be explained without breaking the story too much. Also, Lee mentions them and then keeps weaving them in throughout the rest of the story, playing with emotional inflections and implications.
That’s one small example, but it shows how deep the worldbuilding goes. The best word for it that I can come up with is “immersive” because we’re also expected to keep up as readers. Yes, the narrative explains a lot of the history and background of Janloon and the country of Kekon, but there is also a lot left for us to infer and imagine. From the politics to the religion, clan dynamics to the history of the guerilla fighters the generation before, there’s a lot happening and it all works.
It’s not just worldbuilding, though. The characters at the heart of the books are four siblings, one adopted, whose very different attitudes towards the clan, jade, and the city drive the dynamics of the story. They are united in caring about each other, but they approach the world in drastically different ways, and Lee shows us a lot of the complexities of the situation through their interactions.
(Of the four siblings, my favorite is really Shae.)
Although there’s a lot of violence in this book, it doesn’t feel exploitative or like it’s there for shock value. This is a world where gangs rule and even the characters we’re sympathetic towards make choices that are tough to grapple with. But Lee manages to show this without writing something that feels grimdark or too awful. Instead, what’s here is a violent, visceral portrait of a time of change and transition, when the old ways and the new are still trying to exist in uneasy coherence.
All in all, this is one of my favorite adult fantasy books from this year, and I can’t wait to see where future installments lead. (Except that I’m worried about all the characters.) It’s a pretty singular story, so I’m not sure that I have any great readalikes. Maybe Erin Bow’s Scorpion Rules, for a similar mix of brutality and hope? If you have read Jade City and have ideas, please let me know!
Here’s a great post from Fonda Lee about her inspiration in creating the world of Jade City.
Previously, on By Singing Light