I enjoyed “Jade City”, and wish I could jump right into telling you why I enjoyed it, but … first, I think I need to talk about the elephant in the room: the publisher’s deceptive marketing. The book was promoted as “The Godfather” crossed with a kung fu action flick. I haven’t seen “The Godfather” (yeah, yeah, I know — I don’t watch a lot of movies outside of science fiction), so I can’t address that, but “Jade City” is hardly Kung Fu Theater. The book is six hundred pages long in paperback, and nineteen hours long as an audiobook. I’ve identified a total of six short scenes that could be classified as action, although the classification is debatable for some of them:
- Teenage boys in a fistfight, which is broken up mid-fight by adults.
- A knife-fight duel involving one of the main characters, ending in a fatality.
- A submachinegun attack on one of the main characters, where he magically throws the bullets back at his attackers.
- The female lead character effortlessly cuts down some less-experienced opponents with a sword.
- A fight scene which isn’t depicted, but the POV character hears it going on outside the building.
- The final climactic battle, which begins as a knife fight, but turns into a mental force-of-will contest and is resolved with magical powers instead.
I listened to “Jade City” as an audiobook, so I can’t do a page count, but I’m guessing these action scenes took up around twelve pages. That’s two percent of the book. Imagine opening a bag of “potato chips” to find it’s 2% potato chips and 98% styrofoam packing peanuts.
I don’t need every book I read to be non-stop action. I’m happy to read about topics that don’t involve action, such as the politics of a galactic empire or the malfunctions of a misdirected artificial intelligence, but when a book is promoted as “action-packed”, I expect more than two percent action. My opinion is that this sort of deceptive marketing drives readers away from the science-fiction and fantasy genres every day.
The marketing machine for this novel (Orbit Books, also the publisher of my best novel nominee) managed to pull quotes from a number of authors who are not household names, but are well-known among fans of science fiction and fantasy. You can read the full quotes on the book’s Amazon page, but I’ll mention a few:
The quote from Ken Liu begins with “Stylish and action-packed, …”. If he considers two percent action to be action-packed, then I can’t imagine how boring the rest of his reading (and writing?) must be, and I’m saying that as someone who literally read encyclopedias for entertainment as a child.
Elizabeth Bear calls the novel “fast-moving”. I enjoyed the book, but the pacing is slow, due to some of the usual culprits: unnecessary sex scenes, unnecessary childhood flashbacks, and using three sentences when the first one got the point across. If Bear calls this fast-moving, I hope her own novels come packaged with caffeine tablets.
Max Gladstone’s quote begins with “Fast cars, brilliant characters, and gangster kung-fu!”. Fast Cars? There’s only one scene resembling a car chase, and the characters are chasing someone riding in a taxicab. The taxi driver doesn’t even realize he’s being chased. Several characters might own sports cars, I suppose, but I don’t remember any of them being driven particularly fast, and crowded urban environments in Asia aren’t generally conducive to fast driving.
Scott Lynch wrote, “Lee’s astute worldbuilding raises the stakes for her vivid and tautly-described action scenes.” OK, I’m giving Lynch a pass, because that sentence is true. If he wrote the quote as a standalone line, then I think he’s giving undue weight to two percent of the book. If the quote came from a longer discussion of the novel, and the publisher pulled a single sentence mentioning action scenes, then it’s more deception on the part of Orbit. The same could be said of quotes from Ann Leckie and Beth Cato (at audible.com). Quotes from Mary Robinette Kowal and Fran Wilde are a bit more balanced.
I hate that I’ve had to begin a review of a book I enjoyed with so much negative commentary, but I didn’t think an honest review was possible without it. Most of what I’m criticizing isn’t the author’s fault at all. I haven’t seen her promoting the book as a non-stop kung-fu fist-fest.
Next week, I’ll post the second half of my review, discussing some of the worldbuilding and other aspects of the novel that kept me wrapped up in its story.