Review (part II): Jade City

jade cityJade City by Fonda Lee

In part I of my review, I wrote about the publisher’s deceptive marketing.  Jade City is slow-paced, not a kung-fu action fest as promised.  But, if you enjoy worldbuilding and character-building, Jade City could be right up your alley.

The story is set in a fictional Asian island nation, Kekon, which strikes me as a mash-up of Taiwan and the Philippines.  Some other reviewers have stated that Kekon is somehow reminiscent of Japan, but I don’t see it, and there is another country in the novel which is clearly a Japanese analogue.  There are also analogues for Russia and the USA, although the US one confused me at first, as its name is pronounced almost the same as the Spanish word for Spain.

Kekon is the world’s only source of Jade, which one of the island’s ethnic groups can use to magical effect:  jumping high, hitting hard, and knocking bullets aside.  The USA and Russia invented a drug which allows their special forces guys to use jade as well, but the drug shortens their lives.  The export market for Jade becomes a major plot point.

One of the things I loved about the book was that the author, instead of worldbuilding with gobbledygook names, used English words, but filled them with new significance.  The POV characters are members of a crime family called the “No Peak Clan”, which is opposed by the “Mountain Clan”.  A clan’s leader is the “Pillar”, who rules over its financial and military halves.  The head of the clan’s finances is the “Weatherman”, who manages the “Lantern Men”.  The head of the military/extortion side of the clan is the “Horn”, his bosses are “Fists”, and their underlings are “Fingers”.

The Spoiler Dragonone-dragon spoiler ahead

Another thing I loved about the book was the sense of dread once open gang warfare broke out.  When we read fiction, we’re used to main characters being in tense and dangerous situations, but deep down, we know the author won’t actually kill them (disclaimer — I haven’t read any George RR Martin novels).  There were large sections of this book where I believed the author might kill every single POV character.  Someday, I may go back to the book to see how she did this so well.  Later in my reading, this belief slipped, as I realized the main female character was super-smart and also a badass in combat and therefore plot-immune (I now know that the author used to write YA novels), but I still thought her entire clan might die, with her fleeing into exile.

Another thing that is normally a pet peeve, but actually worked in this book, was the self-doubt of the younger members of the crime family.  I roll my eyes at books where the hyper-competent main character is a nail-biting basket case of self-doubt.  Competent people in the West, and the majority of incompetent ones, are typically overconfident (references:  American Idol, my co-workers).  Asian parents, though, have a special way of installing crippling, lifelong self-doubt in their offspring (references:  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, my wife’s grandmother), so I bought into it for this novel.

The Spoiler DragonThe Spoiler Dragontwo-dragon spoiler ahead

One character that I felt wasn’t handled so well was a high-ranking clan member who was a traitor, working in the interests of the other clan.  I was enjoying this plotline at first, wondering whether all the dropped hints of treason were true, or whether it was a whisper campaign by the real traitor, trying to get rid of a loyalist.  Then, the author lets out that the traitor guy is a pedophile.  Boom, all suspense gone, now I know he’s really a traitor.  Without this pedophilia revelation, I’d have wondered if he was actually a good guy even after his treason was revealed.  I’d have imagined that he was masterminding a second betrayal from within the other clan’s ranks, and would ride in to save the day for his original clan at the last minute.  But, there’s no way any author would have a pedophile save the day, so my mind couldn’t stay engaged with this possibility.

The Spoiler DragonThe Spoiler DragonThe Spoiler Dragonthree-dragon spoiler ahead

I’m not sure that I’ve fully thought through my last point, but I have a feeling that the ending wasn’t as conclusive as I’d have liked.  The POV characters take out the most dangerous member of the opposing clan, but the war is still going on at the end of the book, and an ominous new character steps in to fill the dead guy’s shoes.  I might have preferred that the war come to a conclusion at the end of the novel, with book two being members of the losing clan moving around in the shadows and trying to reconstitute their organization, or just carrying out a revenge plot.  Alternately, the second book could have involved US or Russian intervention.  As things stand now, it seems that the author is locked into a book two plot very similar to that of book one.  I’m hoping she’ll surprise me and prove me wrong.



  1. “Ha” to the author proving you wrong. Not that I know anything about this book or any potential sequel, but I do know that tradepubhouses like formulaic success…

    1. Well, I guess copying a previous plot worked out for the Star Wars people…

      1. Well, define “worked out”

        1. Strictly financially. Although, I heard this last film bombed in Asia, so it may not have worked out as well as they thought it would.

  2. Total agreement on the sense of dread: I was worried about characters all the time, once the war broke out, and being familiar with GRR Martin 😀 I was certain we were destined to say goodbye to one or more of them…

    1. That aspect really did work well here. I still can’t quite put my finger on why it worked, so I may have to get a print copy someday and go through it.

  3. […] read of 2017, was published by Orbit, my lowest-ranked publisher.  Orbit also published “Jade City“, which I enjoyed, although its marketing was intentionally […]

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