Blogging the Nebulas: Mafia Epics and Hong Kong Action Films Meet in Jade City

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 19, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

Fonda Lee’s Jade City is a sprawling story as much about the rough history of the fantastical island state of Kekon as it is about the crime family at its focus. It’s a generation and some past Kekon’s occupation by a foreign power, an invading force that was ultimately repulsed by the Green Bone warriors. The Green Bones are members of an ethnic minority who, through a combination of culturally-specific training and genetic propinquity, can wear and wield the near-magical jade, a local resource that confers almost superhuman powers. In the decades since the reestablishment of Kekonese home rule, the cadre of Green Bone warriors—now quasi-mythic war heroes—have broken into rival clans, the biggest of which are the No Peak and Mountain clans. The clans have, in the intervening decades, turned into something more respectable than organized crime, but something less impersonal than government. Jade City is a collection of neighborhoods where allegiances can shift with a street fight, and where the superhuman enact violent family squabbles alongside a populace just trying to keep its head down.

When we first meet the members of the No Peak clan, down on the streets of the Kekonese capital, they and the Mountain clan are in an uneasy truce. Their leaders (called Pillars) have heretofore been estranged war heroes, old men whose nostalgic camaraderie kept true bloodletting at bay, even in a rapidly modernizing world. But of late, the leader of the Mountain clan has died, and his ambitious daughter has ruthlessly eliminated anyone who might question her power within the clan. Now, she has her sights set on overtaking No Peak.

The No Peak clan’s warrior leader nominally stepped aside to allow his grandson, Kaul Lan, to take over as Pillar, but this is a retirement as fraught as King Lear’s. Kaul Lan’s brother, Kaul Hilo, runs the clan’s street operations—its muscle and fighters—while their grandfather’s hidebound associate continues on as consigliere. Rounding out the family are a sister, Kaul Shae, who has returned in disgrace after a failed romance with a foreigner, and an adolescent ward of the Kaul family, taken in after his mother succumbed to a lethal jade sensitivity.

The current Pillar of No Peak, Kaul Lan, is a measured man. He’s doing his best to keep his hot-headed brother and his slippery, inscrutable adviser from waging civil war within the clan, even while open conflict with the Mountain clan threatens. The Mountain clan is working to extend the sale of shine, a drug that allows laypeople to wear and wield jade, without the intense training required of a true Green Bone warrior. Which is to say, the Mountain clan is looking to supply jade to the very foreign powers which occupied Kekon just a generation ago. The conflict between the clans is both internecine and international, a complex division that must take into account both the nuance of the ethos of the Green Bone warrior, and the larger geo-political machinations of an island state both separated and unified by the power jade grants.

Jade City is a peripatetic story, moving from rough dockside dives to the gilded homes of the city’s most vaunted citizens. It owes as much to The Godfather as to Hong Kong action movies like Infernal Affairs, with a twisting, incident-packed plot in which loyalties are both up for grabs, and impossible to divine.

Why it will win:

The scope of Jade City is impossibly broad; it’s also the kind of ambitious narrative that grounds itself down into the inevitably of character. Through 10 or so well-voiced individuals with their own motivations and weaknesses, we get the portrait of a nation on the cusp of something—something brutal or beautiful, depending on the placement of its characters. In scope and ambition, it reminded me a bit of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings (which was nominated for the Nebula a few years back)There are important differences—The Grace of Kings details a medieval country ruled over by an emperor, while Jade City is a modern place, more post-War Hong Kong than shogunate Japan, despite its warrior caste—but both novels tell the stories of nations through the sometimes martial, sometimes criminal actions of their casts of characters. Both novels have scope.

Why it won’t win: 

Alas, The Grace of Kings didn’t pick up the Nebula, and I feel like it’s unlikely this one will too. For better or for worse, Nebula voters have a general preference for science fiction over fantasy (with exceptions made for well-established authors; Jade City is Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults, though she has written several excellent books for YA readers). Jade City does something very cool with the national epic, bending it according to the crystalline nature of the near-magical jade, but it might be that it is too beholden to other genres for Nebula voters: the mafia family saga, the crime novel, the action film (I said much the same about fellow nominee Amberlough, shot through with spy novel DNA). That said, Jade City is a beautiful, dangerous place, and it’s well worth a visit. Just keep your eye on the street.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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