With Jade City, Fonda Lee launches the Green Bone Saga: an ambitious fantasy trilogy about the internal feuds and geopolitical maneuvers of two warrior clans who have, for twenty-five years, divided control of the swiftly modernizing island nation of Kekon and its capital city, Janloon. No Peak clan is headed by the Kaul family, while Mountain clan is headed by the Ayt family. When the book opens, the relationship between No Peak and Mountain is in the process of shifting from tacit alliance to bloody opposition. As Jade City progresses, we follow the Kauls’ slow realization that they face grave threats to the existence of their dynasty and the network of client-families that support it. The young scions of No Peak—Kaul Lan, Kaul Hilo and their sister Kaul Shae—will need to reconcile their roles within the clan, and succeed at yoking international business-espionage to Kekon’s supernatural martial traditions, if they are to survive and protect their own.
Jade City delivers intricately plotted original fantasy, supported by disciplined worldbuilding. It also provides its readers with a penetrating look at the human costs incurred by a society that is based on conditioned loyalties and martial training. Not all of the characters in Jade City are convincingly animated, however. A side effect of Lee’s clearly off-the-charts levels of authorial executive function is that from time to time her people and events behave a little too neatly in the service of the wider narrative. (I’m thinking here particularly of a low-status thug named Bero, who sets off major action chains but remains a flat-voiced cipher.) Plot twists and character evolutions are often detectable in advance because of Lee’s determination to tee them up perfectly. Some readers will appreciate the sheer clarity of Jade City’s structure and its commitment to keeping its plot promises. Others will chafe at the way the book focuses on producing stated deliverables instead of allowing itself to contain genuine surprises. For the latter, the good news is that the deliverables—while eerily well-organized—are pretty damn cool.
In Kekon, you see, unique deposits of “bioenergetic” jade have shaped the culture for centuries. The stone’s dramatic properties have given rise to overlapping myths about the mineral’s origin, and contradictory opinions about its meaning and highest use. Practice, however, has mostly centered around its military applications. Individuals who are able to “carry” jade, instead of being either immune to its effects or destroyed by them, can derive remarkable powers from the stone. “Lightness” is the ability to leap long distances through the air; “Steel” is the ability to toughen one’s skin to the point of near-impenetrability. “Channeling” directs lethal energies into an opponent’s organs and nervous system, while “Deflection” generates force fields useful for both self-defense and aggression. (It’s also the reason Lee can write about hand-to-hand combat and knife-fighting as her culture’s prime martial practice: a well-applied Deflection renders bullets useless.) “Perception” allows the detection of others’ emotional states and intentions and “Strength” is, well, enhanced strength. A warrior who can use all of these is known as a Green Bone, a title that comes with respect and bragging rights. But jade-catalyzed powers cannot be reliably accessed without rigorous training, so No Peak clan and Mountain clan have both established Academies where the next generation of men and women can be educated and tested before graduating to a life of service and sworn loyalty.
If that all sounds like an exciting and inflexible basis for a functioning society—it is. One of my favorite things about Jade City is the way Lee clearly revels in writing well-oriented, pulse-pounding fight scenes that show off the cinematic applications of her magic system, while also retaining a firm commitment to expose the damage done to individuals who suffer as a result of Kekonese culture’s lack of free choice, and unwillingness to countenance or address anything that presents as weakness. In Lee’s careful telling, the two are intertwined—the beautiful, violent, balletic sequencing of a fight to the death between Green Bone warriors, and the slow, behind-the-scenes erosion of jade-burdened, honor-conscious, unconfessed human psyches.
Here’s a fight scene example. About a third of the way through the book, Mountain clan attempts to assassinate Kaul Hilo, the most charismatic and dangerous member of No Peak’s clan leadership. It’s the opening move of a full-scale takeover attempt by Ayt Mada, the lethal new head of Mountain, and the beginning of No Peak’s real troubles. Hilo saves himself for the nonce, after an initial setback that looks like this:
With a snarl of effort, [Hilo] leapt backward, Light, onto the top of a parked car. [His opponent] released a powerful wave of Deflection, and Hilo’s feet were knocked out from under him as he landed; he slammed chest first onto the roof. His chin smacked metal and his vision wavered… (p. 155)
You can see how well Lee incorporates her system of jade-effects into a surprise street fight, so they seem like a logical extension of physical combat. You can also see what this would look like on a movie screen, as Hilo launches himself backward away from danger with trained supernatural lightness and is brutally countered by a remote, invisible leg sweep. All of the fight scenes in Jade City are like this—they’re visually compelling, spatially assured, tense as hell, and don’t soft sell the physical punishment involved though they also don’t linger on it. Hilo extricates himself from this situation through a nasty grappling match that is also a duel of psychokinetic forces:
As they…crashed to the asphalt, Hilo struggled, managing to wrap his arms around the man’s torso. The Green Bone’s aura spiked wild as he twisted in Hilo’s grip, and Hilo took all of it, all the jade power he could gather, and with a sharp thrust of his palm, Channeled into his opponent’s heart. The assassin’s Steel buckled like balsa wood, and his heart spasmed and burst. (p. 156)
Clan fighters like Hilo are human weapons: alert, poised, decisive and deadly. What they cannot afford to be is doubters, wonderers, re-thinkers, or innovators distracted by time-consuming possibilities and what-ifs. And it’s only under unusual circumstances that they can be allowed to forgive. Throughout Jade City, Lee pursues a painful conversation between the committed, clan-embedded Hilo and his more ambivalent siblings, Kaul Lan and Kaul Shae, about the sharp restrictions Kekonese warrior society imposes on individual behavior and thought. At the beginning of the book, both Lan and Shae are interested in developing alternative modes of personal conduct that permit them to respond to failures of duty, or even love, with something other than a drawn blade. By the end of this first instalment in The Green Bone Saga, events have dashed their hopes, and conferred political primacy on Hilo’s instinct for unsparing revenge.
When we first meet her, Shae is eager to discover the world outside of Kekon. In her pursuit of exploration and change, she has foresworn her Green Bone training and the practice of wearing jade. Hilo regards this as a thoughtless, embarrassing affectation, and it’s not until violent events drive Shae’s re-inclusion within No Peak, and her murderous reclamation of her personal arsenal of jade, that she begins to understand how much her “defection” rankled her brother. Here’s a tense exchange between the two:
“The point is,” [Hilo] ground out […] “You did what you felt like, without doing it properly, just like—” He caught himself, but Shae’s face had already stiffened.
“Like what?” she asked coolly. “Like moving to Espenia? ... Like taking off my jade without permission?” There was, to Hilo’s great surprise, a sliver of hurt in her voice. (p. 340)
She is back, but at a great cost, the nature of which I found frustrating as a reader who is always looking to see what means toward autonomy, what portals and engines, authors provide for female characters. The Green Bone Saga isn’t over, but its first volume ends on a fatalistic note where Shae is concerned. Once curious, and willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing her exact place, she has traded experimentation for the sheer and awful beauties of the known and foreordained. She has again become a weapon. Toward the end of the book, we catch a glimpse of her as “an alarming individual … wearing more jade than a whole navy special ops team” (p. 429).
Shae’s older brother Kaul Lan is the head of No Peak, and a moderating influence on the more impulsive Hilo. But his temperate nature renders him a reluctant fighter, susceptible to intimate, interior forms of damage. (Relatedly: Lan’s wife has recently left him, and the brothers do not agree about what the consequences should be for her.) At the same time, Lan’s high status within No Peak clan, and his technical identity as Ayt Mada’s prime rival, demands constant public demonstration of his physical and psychological strength. The assassination attempt on Hilo backs him into a corner; when Mountain clan offers to clear the insult to No Peak via single combat, Lan has no choice but to enter the contest personally. “What sort of Green Bone would [he] be, to send his injured younger brother to fight…a second time instead of answering a direct challenge himself?” (p. 170) He is publicly victorious but secretly wounded, and when the duel is over we see an understanding of the need to maintain “face” pass between Lan and Hilo in what is, for my money, at once the most horrible and most touching scene in all of Jade City:
Once [the driver] had pulled the car onto the freeway and they were speeding back through the city, Hilo twisted around and offered his brother a cigarette, then lit it for him. He turned to face the front again and rolled the window down halfway. “Must hurt like a bitch,” he said quietly. “Lie down, Lan. No one here to see but us.” (p. 174)
Injuries that must be hidden and stories that must not be told accumulate heavily on particular characters in Jade City, driving them to failure and breakdown. Lan’s secret, undiscussed wound will have terrible consequences for No Peak clan. It is also thematically aligned with the secret psychological wounds endured by the Kauls’ adopted cousin Anden Emery: a talented, self-contained young man who is enrolled in No Peak’s martial training academy and headed for a promising career as a Green Bone. As the war with Mountain escalates, and the pressure to perform increases for the Kaul family and their clients, Lee gives us a devastating view, through Anden, of what happens to victims of trauma in a society where unquestioning service, “mental toughness,” and physical conditioning are the foremost public virtues. And once again Hilo—magnetic, happy-go-lucky, fearsome, kind, brutal, loyal Hilo—is poised at the fulcrum of Anden’s understanding of who he is, what he can bear, and what he may become. Here, the younger man attempts to air some of his worries:
“You know my family history,” Anden said quietly.
… Hilo scratched an eyebrow with his thumb, his other hand still on Anden’s shoulder. “Your family history? Your grandda was a war legend: your uncles were famous … They say your mother could Perceive a bird flying overhead and Channel from such a distance that she’d stop its heart in midair.”
Anden stared at the tip of his burning cigarette. That was not what he’d been thinking of. “They called her the Mad Witch.” (p. 70)
Hilo’s deliberately selective account of his cousin’s heredity is an attempt to erase and ease Anden’s indelible doubts and hurts. But we soon learn that he was a lone child witness to his warrior-mother Aun Uremayada’s final descent into self-harming madness via an incurable condition known as “the Itches,” which can take hold of Green Bones who are oversensitive to jade. Anden has every reason to fear his fate if he assumes what appears to be his destined role as Hilo’s right-hand man. His fears cannot be dealt with effectively, however, within the unyielding framework of Green Bone “aisho” (honor) and clan loyalty, so they remain below the surface until, spectacularly, they cannot any more. Truth, as they say, will out. Even in Kekon.
By the end of Jade City, Lee has succeeded in rendering a suspenseful, detailed portrait of internecine conflict on the streets and in the boardrooms of Janloon. She has also begun to expand the arena of struggle. The battle for survival between No Peak and Mountain increasingly involves secondary interventions by the powerful Republic of Espenia, and the less-developed but perhaps more aggressive nation of Ygutan, both of which are interested in securing reliable supplies of jade for their own purposes. The Green Bone Saga’s opportunities to explore industrial espionage, family tensions, backroom dealing, military gambits, and of course spectacular hand-to-hand fighting can only become more plentiful going forward. It’s a series to watch with interest.