Janloon has long been a city enveloped in war: fascinated by the power its jade brings to the Kekonese Green Bone warriors, foreign powers once attempted to invade the city, eventually repelled by the Green Bones clans. But years after that war ended, a new conflict threatens to break out between the clans of No Peak and the Mountain. Once allies, the tension between the clans is growing, and the Kaul family of No Peak struggles to quell the rising threat of war.
In her adult fantasy debut, Norton Award-nominated young adult author Fonda Lee creates a rich setting in Janloon, the claustrophobic city that serves as the background for the brewing battle between two crime families. The story largely centers on the Kauls: Kaul Lan, the eldest and No Peak’s Pillar (leader); Kaul Hilo, his brother’s second-in-command Horn; Kaul Shae, the only daughter, recently returned from virtual exile in the foreign country of Espenia; and Emery Anden, the siblings’ mixed-race cousin still in the Kaul Du Academy as he masters the use of jade.
Jade City ranks among my favorite adult fantasy of the year in a season of ridiculously good speculative fiction. The first book in an ongoing series, the novel focuses heavily on the bonds of family, both in blood and in spirit, and the lengths that people will go to in order to do what they think is right.
Touted as The Godfather meets a Hong Kong gangster movie with a touch of magic, the influences of organized crime stories is readily apparent throughout the book. While I usually enjoy the thrill of gangster-themed stories, one thing that’s always troubled me about this particular subgenre is its treatment of women (or, frankly, its lack thereof.)
But Jade City was written by a female author, and I held out hope that this book might offer something different.
While the cast remains terribly lopsided in terms of gender balance, it’s obvious that Lee has taken her own compunctions with the misogyny of the genre into consideration. There are three women key to the story: Kaul Shae, Maik Wen, and Ayt Mada. Wen is a sister to Hilo’s most important men as well as his lover; Ayt Mada is Lan’s counterpart as the Pillar of the Mountain, a ruthless woman whose reputation precedes her. The novel unfortunately doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test at all; despite some extremely important and plot-compelling conversations that happen between two of the three women, the number of men who hold important roles make it virtually impossible to have a discussion that doesn’t involve them. However, none of the women seem especially beholden to the men — even Wen, despite her introduction in the book giving me a pretty weird feeling.
Though background characters are almost all male, it’s acknowledged that women do become Green Bones, and the way that Lan and Hilo think of the female characters feels respectful rather than dismissive. There’s also a distinct awareness of the misogyny of the world of organized crime. At one point, one of the brothers specifically seeks out a female Green Bone for a task, believing she’ll do a better job than the men — because female Green Bones have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be considered almost as good, and he trusts that much more.
Another aspect of the novel I appreciated was the complexity and character development of Kaul Shae, who returns to Janloon at the start of the book after fleeing the city in disgrace because her grandfather rejected her romantic relationship with an Espenian man. Shae is much more sophisticated and worldly than her brothers, despite her age; her time spent in college in Espenia has given her significantly more experience outside Kekon — and outside Green Bones culture — than anyone else in the story. She’s a strong warrior, but she’s also a clever and talented tactician, and it’s easy to see why her brothers are trying to bring her back into the family business despite her reservations.
If you’re reading Jade City for the female characters, you’ll find a slow buildup, with the women’s stories amplifying and building momentum over the course of the book. Shae is my favorite character in the entire story; while I wish I could have seen more of Ayt Mada, it definitely makes sense that the family’s greatest enemy is… not given a terribly large amount of page time.The ending, though, offers hope to see more of these characters in the next book.
Jade City is a great read for those who enjoy gangster movies who are seeking stories with female characters with complexity, and with the fantasy action sequences aside, it’s a beautiful family saga and political intrigue title. Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut is definitely one to add to your bookshelf.
4.5 out of 5 stars
This review contains affiliate links. While Girls in Capes does make revenue from purchases made at affiliate links, reviews are not paid, and all reviews contain the staff writers’ honest opinions of the work.