Last year, when I revisited and reviewed Jade War for this publication, I pointed out how impressive that novel is not just for its own strengths, but for being the kind of sequel that expands its own fictional world in some of the best possible ways. Well, dear reader, Fonda Lee has done it again, building up the scope of this already wide-ranging series to encompass decades of political and emotional challenges for the Kaul family of Kekon's No Peak Clan.
Where series opener Jade City established the island nation of Kekon, its political system, its powerful crime families, and the rivalry between the No Peak clan and their competitors, the Mountain, and Jade War established the international context around that struggle, Jade Legacy puts that clan conflict back at the heart of the plot. This is the book where the Kaul family might finally get to land some hits on their powerful, seemingly invincible rival Ayt Mada, and that's going to take every single resource at their disposal.
First, let's establish that, if you have not read the previous books in this series, this review is not going to make a whole lot of sense. Readers who want a refresher on Kekon, the Kaul family, the concept of bioenergetic jade, or any of the series' other central premises would be better off checking my Jade War review, although there's a significant Jade City spoiler in there too. For those who need a short reminder: Kekon is an island nation in a secondary world with politics reminiscent of mid- to late-twentieth-century Earth. Until recently, Kekonese people have been uniquely able to harness the bioenergetic jade that can only be found in their country, giving them access to various superpowered feats. Now, there's a drug that makes jade usable by anyone, and that means huge shifts in trade and military power, which in turn requires new strategies of Kekon's most powerful political forces, the jade-using clans.
Most of the external events of Jade Legacy relate to the "Long War" (i.e. cold war) between kinda-USA-like Espenia and their political rivals Ygutan. We learn a bit about the ideological difference used by the two powers to justify their war, and that it is a religious more than a political disagreement; but it doesn't play a big role in the plot and it's not very important to the calculations of anyone in Kekon. Instead, the interactions between the clans and their international counterparts are grounded in realpolitik (that is, based on self-interest rather than ideology or ethical theory): the superpowers want jade, and they want to prevent their rivals from obtaining jade, and they want to give Kekon as little as possible in return for jade. The Kekonese clans, meanwhile, want to further their economic interests and strengthen their positions relative to each other and they want to protect their power from the cultural threat that foreign influences might present. While we only see glimpses of the internal politics driving Espenia, Ygutan and other nations, Jade Legacy spends plenty of time showing these different political factions within Kekon—and the rising force that is anti-clan sentiment, which in turn is weaponised by foreign interference to become a dangerous force of its own.
Of course, Jade Legacy doesn't build its gut-wrenching tension and page-turning readability out of faceless political forces alone. The Kaul siblings Shae, Hilo, and Anden, and Hilo's wife Wen, remain at the heart of the series. There are other returning faces as well—like Shae's second-in-command Woon Papi and Wen's surviving brother Maik Tar, as well as drifting grifter and smalltime antagonist Bero, and plenty of others. By this point, all of the "core" generation of Kauls have been through trauma after trauma: the death of their eldest brother Lan, Shae's dangerous duel against rival Ayt Mada and loss of much of her jade, Wen's run-in with an Espenian gang which has left her permanently disabled, and Anden ... well, everything that happens to poor Anden. Those traumas are constantly present in how the members of the family interact with each other and the rest of the world, and while there is plenty of room for change (Hilo and Wen's relationship starts off deeply strained by her actions in Jade War, but it doesn't remain that way), there's also a real weightiness to the immediate past that the family are carrying around. This makes Jade Legacy, for all its huge political scope, feel like a very intimate story, one about young folks who have somehow grown old over the course of a single story.
Take Ayt Mada, the Kauls' main rival: older than the Kaul siblings, and where they are beginning to show their age and weariness in the face of constant political crisis, Ayt is in an even more desperate and precarious situation, without a clear heir and balancing increasingly fractious factions within the Mountain clan. Ayt is an extraordinary character in her own right, and more so because she comes across as a three dimensional, intriguing person without us ever seeing her inner thoughts in the same way we do in the case of the Kaul family members, and many other supporting characters. Ayt is. As she begins to look weaker, her relationship with the Kauls, particularly Shae, changes in a way that turns the conflict from one where the destruction of one family seems inevitable, to something more complex.
The aging of the old generation, meanwhile, is matched with the coming-of-age of the new, and as the book progresses we spend increasing amounts of time with Hilo and Wen's children—Nico (biologically Kaul Lan's child, adopted after Hilo murders his mother and stepfather), Ru, and Jaya. While Jaya provides some entertaining moments, and an interesting commentary on the status of women within the clan, it's the respective outlooks of Nico and Ru which drive this aspect of the story forward. Nico, as the Kaul's heir apparent, has to grapple with the expectations the clan have of him—even as he first discovers the truth of what happened to his mother, and then faces temptation from the newer, less honourable mercenary careers now open to a Green Bone warrior.
Ru, in contrast, has to build a future of his own: like his mother Wen, he's a stone-eye, unable to use jade and therefore shut out of much of the clan's formal structure. Unlike his mother, Ru is growing up in a generation where his condition is less stigmatised. His complex but fundamentally good-natured relationship with his family's legacy—and the way he balances that with his own ambitions and life-path—make him one of the most compelling characters in the series, and certainly the most interesting of the young Kauls.
Perhaps inevitably, it's Ru's destiny that ends up being most shaped by forces outside the family's control, and the climax of his story also ends up also being the climax of Bero's. Bero, the wildcard of the Green Bone Saga, has always been a small-time player in events that bring him into conflict with the family, despite having no structural power and little in the way of talent. That it is a petty grievance of his—a manifestation of chaotic, stupid luck—that ends up limiting Ru's ambition to create his own path with the hand dealt to him, is at once deeply fitting and one of the most devastating moments in Jade Legacy.
I say "one of the most devastating", because there sure are a lot of devastating moments in this book. After two volumes of becoming invested in the fortunes of the Kaul family, I found Jade Legacy a tense reading experience, to the point of feeling physically ill during certain scenes. Because Jade Legacy compresses decades of world-changing events and character growth into its 700 pages, it creates the feeling of being caught up in a fast-moving political situation where the ground is constantly shifting. This fire-hose of events is an effective way to create tension, but it might hit too close to home for readers living through their own Interesting Times, and it's a bold choice to artificially accelerate this part of the narrative rather than maintaining a more measured pace through a larger number of books (if that was an option). That's not to say that Jade Legacy is an unpleasant book, but the feelings it created in me were like watching a sports team I support as they play through a nail-biting, extended final with no clear winner in sight: you're invested, you can't not watch, and the payoff might be amazing, but it doesn't feel great when you're in the middle of it. Even positive moments feel tinged with precariousness or guilt: both Shae and Anden settle down with steady partners after their respective romantic dramas in Jade War, but there's a tension in both of their partnerships—especially Anden's—between their personal affections and the good of the clan.
The sheer number of events also means that there are elements which get overtaken by new things and fall away. As in previous books of the series, relatively minor characters and events often end up being important in unexpected ways later, and there are a lot of satisfying delayed payoffs. But often major plotlines stumble: the plot around the anti-clan movement that drives the novel’s first half, for example, and even the fallout from the major event the movement precipitates. In this case, what feels like a huge political turning-point midway through the book is followed by a timeskip that softens a lot of the impact of what happens next, and then it's on to the next thing.
Nevertheless, the payoff of Jade Legacy is ultimately worthwhile, and enormously so. Of course I'm not going to spoil how the denouement eventually plays out, but it brings together the threads of the family's fortunes in a very satisfying way: everything the Kauls have done to modernise, build alliances, maintain their leverage over enemies, and offer opportunities and growth to their successor generation, comes to a head in a way which just makes sense. And, of course, it's about legacy: just as Hilo, Shae, Lan, and Emery had to deal with the legacy of their revolutionary grandfather and the clan he built, so too do the Kaul children inherit what their parents' generation has built for them—in all its morally grey, culturally intricate, constantly changing complexity.
Jade Legacy wasn't always a happy experience to read. But it's an outstanding book capping off a trilogy that has improved with every volume. This series deserves to be on every epic fantasy reader's radar.