Like, seriously. I will never look at a secondary world fantasy the same way again. Jade City, the third book overall and first adult novel from author Fonda Lee, does such a phenomenal job of creating the country of Kekon and its religion and politics and economy and international relations, that it will be very difficult for other books to measure up.
So Jade City is set in a fictional East Asian country called Kekon whose primary resource is a magical version of jade. Green Bones are warriors who are trained to use jade to make use of magical powers, and our protagonists are Green Bones and scions of the No Peak clan, one of the most powerful clans in Kekon. But as a new drug called shine — which lets untrained people wear jade without adverse consequences — hits the streets in ever greater quantities, the rival Mountain clan scents weakness in No Peak, and warfare between the clans threatens all of Kekon’s capital city.
I read Jade City due to the tireless advocacy of the marvelous Bridget at SF Bluestocking, and I admit that I found it slow going at first. One of the reasons I fight shy of secondary world fantasy is that I tend to struggle with the world-building up front, and that’s particularly true in Jade City, where Fonda Lee has fleshed out what feels like every corner of her world.
But the payoff for sticking with it is considerable. Once I had a grip on the power structures and conflicting political interests and magic system, I was able to give myself over to the story completely. Our central family is the Kauls, led by the Pillar, Kaul Len; his Weather Man, an old friend of his grandfather’s called Doru; and his Horn, the younger and more bellicose Kaul brother, Hilo. Their youngest sister Shae has returned from abroad, having given up her life as a Green Bone warrior to pursue a romantic relationship that didn’t work out and a degree in business.
That last thing? The degree in business? Is one of the big reasons I adore Jade City. Fonda Lee hasn’t confined herself to building out the sexy details, like the fact that when two Green Bone warriors fight, the victorious one gets to take all the jade off the defeated one’s body and keep it for themselves. She also gets into the economics of Kekon and the importance of maintaining a clean supply of trade to other countries: Jade is Kekon’s most important resource, and every clan has to take this into account as they plan for the future. There are other bits like this, as when Hilo and Shae and Lan discuss the negative impact on tourism war with the Mountain would entail. It’s just so thought out, a modern(ish) secondary world that’s been built from the ground up with such meticulous care. God damn was I ever into it.
With all of this worldbuilding (y’all: SHUT UP ABOUT THE WORLDBUILDING), it would be more than easy for Fonda Lee to have taken a break on character development. But she totes does not! Her central characters are the three Kaul siblings, plus an adoptive younger one called Anden, whose mother went mad from jade addiction. Uneasy, complicated sibling relationships are my obvious fave, and Fonda Lee has a ton of great stuff to work with here. Family feelings run high in Kekon, and by the time Hilo [redacted] Anden for [redacted], you know enough about these two characters for it to hurt in every way Lee wants to make it hurt. And there are so many minor characters who seem more than ready to step into the limelight in subsequent books — I particularly want to see more of Hilo’s girlfriend Wen, who is much more than she seems.
Okay. That is probably enough blathering for the time being. Jade City is hella good. Get on it.