Review (part I): Jade City

jade cityJade City by Fonda Lee

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:

  1. Teenage boys in a fistfight, which is broken up mid-fight by adults.
  2. A knife-fight duel involving one of the main characters, ending in a fatality.
  3. A submachinegun attack on one of the main characters, where he magically throws the bullets back at his attackers.
  4. The female lead character effortlessly cuts down some less-experienced opponents with a sword.
  5. A fight scene which isn’t depicted, but the POV character hears it going on outside the building.
  6. 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.

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16 comments

  1. That’s why I never trust the promotional blurbs. Never read them really. They just get some author from the same publishing house to right a random sentence, probably without even reading the whole book.

    1. I’ll only look at them out of curiosity in the future. I was kind of one the fence about reading this book, so I was looking for as much info as I could get.

      I ended up enjoying the book for its worldbuilding and such, but it was no action-fest.

    2. The thing I still wonder about on this one: the guy who wrote the most off-base quote, starting with “Fast cars”, is supposedly a close friend of the author. You would assume he’d read the book, right?

      1. I would assume him the most biased and inclined to write something false. So makes sense.

  2. Publishers love those kind of blurbs and encourage reviews to have them.

    Unless the reviewer is very skilled, he’s not going to be able to do a one-sentence wrap up and accurately describe the book.

    A similar thing happens when people try to write funny reviews. Accuracy usually gets sacrificed for wit.

    1. I’m still guessing these people wrote more than one sentence for review, and the publishers just pulled out any sentence with the word “action”. I just can’t believe anyone could read this book, and action is the first thing that pops into their head.

  3. Much as I enjoyed this book, it was not for the ‘action’ but rather for the fascinating mix between the peculiar magic system and the society it depicted. And the characters, of course.
    With all of the above, who needs action? 😀

    1. I also liked the worldbuilding and characters, but there were parts of the book that needed to be faster-paced. Maybe an action scene would have done the trick, or maybe cutting out a few flashbacks would have done the job just as well.

  4. Ahoy there matey. This was an absolutely fascinating review of the blurbs for this novel. I actually chose to read this book based on Ken Liu’s blurb. The Godfather part of the marketing ploy was a negative from me perspective. But it still intrigued me and so I wanted to read it. Liu’s blurb and the many others by authors I admire actually made me excited. And while the world building and characterization were wonderful, I just kept waiting for action that never appeared. And magic battles. And Kung-Fu fights galore. Instead it was family politics and sooo much time passing where not much happened. I may not have liked the book even without the blurbs’ tantalizing comments. But the feelings and desires I had for the book based on those blurbs led to extreme letdown and disappointment. I kept thinking I was somehow reading the wrong book or a different book. I think the book could have used a ton of pruning and then perhaps I would have finished it. A link to me review is below if ye like. No pressure. Looking forward to reading part two.
    x The Captain

    https://thecaptainsquartersblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/abandoned-ship-on-the-horizon-jade-city-fonda-lee/

    1. Yes, I read your review, and I think one other negative review, before reading the novel, but I went ahead and gave it a shot. I think I ultimately decided to read it because I wanted to get a few more 2017 novels under my belt before making my planetary awards nomination.

      I agree with you about the pruning. A faster pace would have made this a killer novel. A bit more action along with the pruning would have been even better.

      I feel like there’s going to be a sequel to this, so I’ll have to decide whether to continue.

      1. I did read part II of the review of this book. Have ye decided about reading book two yet?
        x The Captain

  5. There’s nothing like listening to a book to help pinpoint slow scenes. I’m currently listening to a high tech thriller on audiobook, and I seem to be spending most of my listening time musing over how much of the writing should have been cut out to keep the pace moving. The book isn’t bad, but thriller it is not.

    1. I’ve read other reviewers and book bloggers discuss skimming over slow parts, so perhaps that’s why they’re more tolerant of slow pacing. I don’t skim books, so things can really bog down, and getting to your point, it’s not very practical to skim in audio format.

      My new year’s resolution was to DNF more slow-paced audiobooks, since I realized I have so many books I’d like to get to.

  6. I’ve heard a lot of authors complain about this kind of thing with their own books. Sometimes marketing departments (in their supposed wisdom) want to do one thing, and the author is left powerless to stop it.

    1. Yeah, sales types just don’t think long term. A misleading blurb can get some extra sales one time, but will drive customers away from future books by the author, the publisher, or even the entire genre.

  7. […] part I of my review, I wrote about the publisher’s deceptive marketing.  Jade City is slow-paced, not a kung-fu […]

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