In Fonda Lee’s Jade City, the title mineral brings magic, power, and life to Kekon, an island metropolis that earned its independence after a war only a generation ago. But though jade bought the nation its freedom, the wanting and wielding of its magical abilities can also leave death and destruction in its wake.
The magical stone is the primary fantasy element in this layered, complex novel, which takes place in a ciy that feels modern-day city, though located on an out-of-the-way island (perhaps in the equivalent of our Pacific). The plot follows the intrigues and squabbling between the Kaul and the Mountain Clans, the powerful, squabbling dynasties that control the flow of jade into Kekon, and thus, the country itself.
Facing the prospect of war with a ruthless enemy, the Kauls struggle under new leadership that may or may not be up to the task, as four family members face choices that will set the course of the rest of their lives: Lan, the new leader; Hilo, the new enforcer; and Shae, the potential new Weather Man, who will control the logistics of rule. Their adopted cousin Anden longs to belong fully to the Kauls, but his mixed blood leaves him forever on the outside.
We see the world through these characters’ eyes, gathering a full picture of Kekon in all its splendid glory and danger. The Kauls hold the power of life and death over their clan and those obligated to it, but Lan is a benevolent godfather, and still deciding how far to push the confrontation with the Mountain Clans.
Hilo is the man of action, eager to use violence to solve any problem, but Lee renders him (like the rest of the main cast) in three dimensions—he is also motivated by a deep love for his family and for a woman, Wen, who he can never marry, due to her lowborn status.
Black sheep Shae once fled Kekon to remove herself from the temptations of jade and free herself from the bonds of the family. She returns determined to remain her own woman, but the gravitational pull of the clan proves powerful indeed.
Anden may be the most sympathetic of the protagonists, longing desperately to please his adopted family, yet terrified of wielding jade’s power lest he suffer the same fate as his mother, who was driven mad by magic. A new drug that allows jade to be used by anyone, pureblood or not, offers Anden hope even as it threatens to weaken the Kaul’s control.
In her first novel for an adult audience, Lee (Exo) has create a work that infuses magic into a family power struggle on the level of The Godfather. In some ways, the use of magic reminded me of the beloved films of Hayao Miyazaki—not because both pull from different Asian cultures and traditions (Miyazaki is Japanese; Jade City’s secondary world pulls from a wide variety of Asian influences), but in the way magic is baked into the world.
Lee shows us the way magic can hold sway over what might otherwise be an ordinary city in an ordinary world. The residents of Kekon are living typical lives, but they are surrounded by the influence of jade, which will corrupt or protect them by turns—but they also accept readily accept the presence of magic as routine when they do encounter it (as in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, in which an apprentice witch is just one of the neighbors). In many fantasy stories, the presence of magic makes one exceptional—a hero, an outcast, or hunted, or outright evil. Like Kiki flying through her quasi-Parisian city on a broomstick, magic in Kekon is simply accepted.
And like The Godfather, this is a story about the intersecting bonds of power and family, and how they can be strained, broken, and reformed, perhaps into a greater whole. In a world where the ruthless can seize power and violence is sometimes the only answer to a problem, the new generation of leaders faces a threat more dangerous than any previous war—corruption and collusion present enemies more insidious, and far less obvious.
Jade City pulls us in and allows us to walk the streets of Kekon: patrolling alongside Hilo; visiting the peaceful gardens at the Kaul estate with Lan; delving with Shae into the jade mines that provide the island its lifeblood, and this story is propulsive plot. It’s a world that will be hard to forget.
[Editor’s note: This review has been edited to more accurately reflect the content of the novel, and clarify comparisons made to other works by Asian creators.]