Jade City by Fonda Lee
Fonda Lee's Jade City centers around a
fictional island country called Kekon and specifically around the Kaul family, the head of a Green Bone crime syndicate called No Peak. Green Bones are people who have been specially trained from a young age to handle jade specifically mined from the island. This special jade gives them super human powers, which they use to fight each other and essentially run things.
Meet the Kauls
At the head of the family, you've got Lan Kaul. He's fairly new to the position of "Pillar" and is a bit more modern and soft-hearted than his grandfather and father before him. He carries a lot of jade and the weight of the family on his calm shoulders, until scuffles between No Peak and a rival gang, the Mountain create complications.
Next in power is Hilo, Lan's younger, hot-headed brother. Hilo was born to be the Horn, or general, of No Peak, having been all about fighting from a very young age. He rolls around town with the Maik brothers, a pair of fighters with a troubled family background.
And last is Shae, the prodigal sister, who left Kekon to go to school in Espenia and ended up marrying an Espenian man, much to the disappointment of her family, especially her grandfather. She finds herself divorced, moving back to Kekon, but wanting to keep her distance from the family business.
There's also Anden, an adopted son of the Kauls who faces the added challenge of having the heightened jade sensitivity of a foreigner while training to become a Green Bone.
The World of Janloon
Okay, let me fan girl for a second here. Lee creates this amazing world just, deftly. There's exposition, but most of the development happens without you even noticing. You're just totally immersed in the story, which is braided with culture, history, mythology, it's got everything. By the end of the novel, Janloon City and everything else feels real.
A while back she posted a great thread on twitter, which you can read here, but I think the key post was this one:
A New Magic System
Jade magic is a lot of fun. I'll break it down a bit for you. Okay, so only the people of Kekon can "easily" wear jade. I say "easily" because even Kekonese people need to train from a young age to be able to handle it. Most other people touch it and lose their minds, or get "the itches" which usually involves a slow and painful death or suicide. Wear too much jade? You get sick. And some people are just naturally inclined toward jade overdose, so it's a tricky rope to walk for many. Normal people who come in contact sometimes become jade obsessed.
A really fun part about this magic system is how ingrained it is in Kekonese culture. There's a whole religion built around it, but this religion doesn't take center stage.
"Each sat cross-legged with hands resting on the top of a mounted jade orb the size of a small bowling ball. To be in contact with so much jade … Shae was reminded of the boulders she’d seen at the mine pit, the mad temptation to put her hand on one of them. The penitents must possess exceptional training and control. They could probably hear a fly landing on a cushion in the back of the room, or Perceive the people on the street outside, yet they were motionless, breathing slowly and steadily, their faces relaxed."
Lee, Fonda. Jade City (The Green Bone Saga) (Kindle Locations 3927-3931). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
One of the things I really loved about this story is that there is no clear villain. Everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do, and there really isn't much malice, which is refreshing. Nobody is an altruistic hero and nobody is evil either. By the way, this book has one of my favorite antagonists ever, Ayt Madashi. She is the head of the opposing clan, the Mountain, and her backstory is like, Kaiser Soze-epic. She's the adopted daughter of the old Pillar of the Mountain, but she was not the first in the line of succession, and there were doubters. She pretty much makes short, bloody work of anyone standing in her way, but still has this cool, collected, intellectual persona. I love it.
"He’d imagined that perhaps the Pillar of the Mountain would be a glamorous and deadly femme fatale. Or perhaps a hard-bitten she-man who exuded toughness and iron authority. Instead, she appeared ordinary, except for the spectacular amount of jade running up both her arms. Mounted in coiling silver bracelets that twined up her forearms and biceps like snakes, there must have been at least a dozen stones on each arm. So much jade, worn so unpretentiously—Green Bones had no need for any other symbols of status."
Lee, Fonda. Jade City (The Green Bone Saga) (Kindle Locations 1512-1515). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
Holy crap, read this book. If you like kung fu, magic, mob stories, whatever, this book has something for just about everybody. I love it, I'm absolutely looking forward to the sequel, which seems to be underway.
Bechdel Test: Pass