Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.
When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.
Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.
Jade City is set in a world where jade confers great strength and power to those who can wield it—without risking madness or a lethal propensity to the Itches.
More than a quarter of a century before, the island nation of Kekon was freed from the imperial thrall of the Shotarians. Ever since, the jade-wielding warriors of No Peak and Mountain—the two largest clans in Kekon’s capital city—have worked together in their complex webs of favor and obligation, indulging the unending performance of glad-handing and compromise, but the candle of their fragile, flexible alliance is burning at both ends and lighting their way to irreversible violence. The Kekonese had thought the war was in the past, but it seems it refuses to remain there.
With foreign powers setting their sights on the Kekonese jade and the illegal trade of a dangerous drug that allows Non-Kekonese to wear jade ballooning, the peace between the clans has become like a damaged cargo rope, unraveling with the speed of a new-lit fire down to a single thread.
And soon, it will snap.
“A man who wears the crown of a king can’t wear the jade of a warrior. Gold and jade, never together. ”
In the interest of candor, this summary can scarcely do justice to the rip-roaring complexity of the plot.
Jade City is a book bursting with ideas, and Lee thoroughly establishes a comprehensible world to make sure it all makes sense. It’s clear that the author went through painstaking work to draw on a fully lived-in world. The magic is well-explained and intriguingly explored, as is the social hierarchy. I also relished the stories of abandoned gods, mythical jade warriors and horrific monsters that are threaded through the entirety of Jade City, making the world feel even more large, even if the story only focuses on a handful of individuals. Admittedly, there’s a lot of exposition to chew on at first, but it’s worth every modicum of effort when the wayward finally gears into line and the story shudders into vivid, mind-bending life. The result is as accessible an experience as going to the movies. If you’re seeking formulaic thrills and spills, Jade City might not be your book. But if you’re looking for an expertly crafted story, with a real sense of place and vividly rendered characters, then look no further.
Alongside the richness of Lee’s world, there’s the mountainous depth of character. The author’s ambitious tapestry includes corruption and treason and vengeance, honor and valor and forbidding love, regrets and sexuality and mercy. It’s a killer story about a family steeped in tragedy and power, affronting painful choices while occupying a city that seems intent on swallowing them whole.
The story centers around the Kaul family. Lan, Shae and Hilo give the impression of three people stuck in connecting rooms with the door shut between them, holding their anger, doubts and anguish in their arms instead of each other. All of them resolved, fierce, miserable. There was such a current of love and rage and loss running between the three siblings. But my heart warmed at how, when it mattered the most, their thinly-veiled resentments fell into a momentary silence, muted in the presence of the imminent danger hovering tantalizingly ahead.
Lan’s character in particular burrowed deep into my heart. Kaul Lan’s heart had no talent for violence. Ever since the mantle of clan Pillar (leader) had been passed to him from his legendary but ailing grandfather, Lan has been trying to keep the rusty, ramshackle machine that is No Peak grinding along. But he had been burdened for so long, and tragically bereft of that state of rage and resentment everyone else expected him to cultivate as the clan’s Pillar. I love how Lan always tried to be a gentle and patient leader, even when his enemies suffered no such compunction, even when his softness was always taken for weakness. Lan was the furthest thing from weak, and as the novel acutely illustrates, it takes great strength to be shown the grimmest face of the world, and still choose to meet its gaze with kindness.
Hilo is his brother’s—Lan’s—opposite in every way. Hilo was always imperious, enraged, and in some abhorrent way, alive. His blood often sang with violence and he possessed such will for vengeance. He only had to think of harm befalling his loved ones and the anger was there for the taking. Hilo certainly had his faults, but cruelty was not among them. For all his unbridled temper, there was something almost vulnerable about him. Hilo radiates the flinching fragility of people who carry the worst kinds of aches, and it’s manifestly apparent in the way he lashes out at his little sister when she leaves her family behind for an Espenian military officer, because he felt abandoned, and lonely, and instead of admitting it, he hung tightly to the iron in his pride, and draped his words in venom just so he’d feel like he’d gotten his bearings again. And it’s that softness, which is often denied and sublimated in favor of dogged anger, that endeared Hilo to me.
I also loved Shae’s character. How she’d taken a risk to rise above the destiny carved out for her by the men in her life. She cast off her jade and went to Espenia where she was just another faceless figure, not the heir to a legendary warrior who liberated his country, or even a jade-wielding soldier who knew five dozen ways to kill with a lover’s intimacy. When Shae came back, it was like coming to a place that had been home but wasn’t anymore. Like trying to fit back into a skin already shed. I really admired her loyalty, how her love for her family reached a new incandescence, chasing away all trace of grudges and grievances.
Shae is not the only female character given so much care and attention. Ayt Madashi was a very arresting villain, and I understood her pitiless reasoning, even as I took the sting of its truculence. Wen, Hilo’s lover, is also granted equal footing in the story. As a jade-immune stone-eye, Wen has suffered the toll of the insidious belief that stone-eyes carry a curse in their blood. It didn’t help that her family was disgraced despite the fact that Hilo has recruited her two brothers as his First and Second Fists, or that Hilo himself—to Wen’s immense exasperation—is constantly tormented over her safety and often tries to keep the face of the world and its violence curtained from her. But Wen isn’t the type to yield to whoever tries to push her into surrender, and, I enjoyed watching her determination grow from a whisper to a scream. I have a feeling she’s going to play an even more enormous role in the next installment.
I have been chosen and trained to carry the gift of the gods for the good and protection of the people, and against all enemies of the clan, no matter their strength or numbers. I join myself to the fellowship of jade warriors, freely and with my whole being, and I will call them my brothers-in-arms. Should I ever be disloyal to my brother, may I die by the blade. Should I ever fail to come to the aid of my brother, may I die by the blade. Should I ever seek personal gain at the expense of my brother, may I die by the blade. Under the eyes of all the gods in Heaven, I pledge this. On my honor, my life, and my jade.
Overall, Jade City is gripping and audaciously inventive. It wraps enough up to satisfy but clearly sets the stage for so much more. I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel!
Trigger warnings: violence, death, drug use, explicit sex scenes, mentions of sexual assault, suicide and self-harm.