Politics, Schemes, and Magic Battles: Fonda Lee – Jade War

One positive thing about being at home sick is that there is plenty of time to read. Granted, I currently have the tendency to fall asleep while reading (not because of the book, but because I’m ill and it makes me tired), but I managed to get through this highly awaited sequel nonetheless. If you haven’t read the first book, Jade City, I urge you to do so – it’s like The Godfather with magic-fuelled martial artists. I promise you it’s just as awesome as it sounds. Also: Beware of spoilers for book one below!

JADE WAR
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2019
Ebook: 600 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: It was madness to rob the grave of a Green Bone. 

In Jade War, the sequel to the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award-nominated Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.
On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.
Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.
Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.
Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

There is a lot going on in this follow-up to the amazeballs Jade City. There’s no easy way to sum it all up, so let me just say, every single character has their hands full. Shae is dealing mostly with politics, both inside the Clan, in Janloon City, on Kekon in general, and internationally. Hilo has his hands full with some of the same, but he also has a baby on the way, a fairly new wife, he’s still looking for his brother’s murderer, and the Jade smugglers are making more trouble than ever before.

The beginning of the novel is used mostly to remind us readers of what happened before and I was immensely grateful for the way Fonda Lee eased me back into this world. Without info dumping, we get to hear who all the key players are again, we’re reminded of how the Clans are organized, how Green Bone culture works, what is at stake, and how opening up jade trade to the wider world has impacted life in Kekon. These first chapters may not be super action-packed but in my eyes, they were necessary to get back into the world of the Green Bone Saga. Even after that, the plot takes a long while to truly kick off. Many, many pages are spent setting up new characters, new locations, new conflicts. It is to Fonda Lee’s credit that none of those chapters could be called boring. She writes her characters so deftly that even a scene where people sit in a room and discuss a trade agreement can feel interesting. If you’re looking for a lot of action all the time, however, be warned that you’ll have to be patient.

Things have changed in the No Peak Clan since the ending of Jade City. Hilo and Shae have grown more into their roles, they have a functioning network of people, spies, and Lantern Men, but they also have more on their plates than they can possible handle. While Shae is dealing with the Espenians on the subject of Jade trade, Hilo is looking for Lan’s killer and trying to somehow gain an advantage over Ayt Mada and her Mountain Clan. And so begins a game of back and forth, where one Clan always seems slightly ahead of the other, only to change in the next chapter. While it can’t be called “action”, I found this really fun to read about. Following the No Peak characters and seeing how they are choosing each of their moves, how clever they are, was very entertaining. The problem is that sometimes, Ayt Mada is even cleverer and all of Shae and Hilo’s efforts are for nothing.

And let’s not forget Anden! After refusing to ever wear Jade again, he is promptly exiled to Espenia – although Shae makes it sound (and probably also means it) like a chance for an education, for seeing more of the world, for getting an outsider’s perspective. As much as Anden hates the idea initially, he eventually grows into the local Green Bone community in Port Massy, the Espenian city that is to be his home for a while. There is even a surprising romance, one that I didn’t see coming, that made me so happy for him and that also kind of broke my heart. Also, like in any good mafia story, Anden may not want to be part of the Clan as a Green Bone, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make himself useful otherwise. I loved that we got to see more of the world and especially a culture that viewed Jade completely different from all our protagonists. While Green Bones from Kekon look at Jade with reverence, as a status symbol, something that can be won in duels and must be worn with pride, the Kekonese in Espenia are quite different. Discoving this new culture along with Anden was one of the highlights of this book for me.

I’m not going to give any important plot points away. Rest assured that you will get some of the amazing action scenes that made the first book so thrilling. But they are few and far between. This volume is mostly concerned with politics. Whether it’s meetings between important people, assassination attempts of important people, spying on important people, and using the information gained that way to manipulate important people… you get the idea. While I love all the characters and enjoyed reading about their quieter moments very much, I do have to say that the book was just a bit too long. Sure, opening up the world to include other nations, a violent conflict on a different continent, and the smugglers working off another island – that all takes time to set up and explain. But maybe Fonda Lee tried to do a little too much at once in this book. It felt like there were always five subplots going on, all with different characters, many of whom don’t even survive until the end.

So where the first novel was streamlined and exactly as long as it needed to be to tell a kick-ass story, this one dragged on a bit. There were a lot of scenes that could have easily been cut. Wen meeting up with a spy, Shae spending time with her boyfriend, Anden’s time with his new Keko-Espenian friends, and so on. I understand that these scenes serve a purpose – whether it’s to show us more of the characters or advance the plot – but this is what editors are for. To do several things at once, like show us a character’s growth while moving the plot along.
Despite all my gripes, this book was highly entertaining and well written throughout. The last third or so delivered exactly the kind of action-packed finale that I had hoped for. There are shocking twists, good and bad surprises, and at least one epic fight scene. The ending leaves many questions open and No Peak in just as precarious a position as before. So despite being well written, this book suffers a lot from middle book syndrome. This book set up sooo many subplots. Only one of them gets any kind of conclusion, so it almost feels like it was added as an afterthought to give this middle book some kind of beginning, middle, and end.

So it wasn’t as good as the first book, but there is no denying that Fonda Lee is a master of writing characters, writing action scenes, and creating a fantastic world. It’s rare that world-building includes the economy as something just as important as, say, military strenght, and I loved how she incorporated it into her story. I will definitely check out the final book when it comes out in 2020, because I’m pretty sure all the set up that happened in Jade War will come to an explosive conclusion. Fingers crossed!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!