Just Like Fire

Jade City — Fonda Lee
Green Bone Saga, book 1


2017’s Jade City is the first installment in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga secondary-world kung-fu gangster saga. At 512 pages, it’s significantly longer than either Exo’s 369 pages or Zeroboxer’s 351. It’s also significantly more ambitious.

The island of Kekon is the only known source of jade, which in this world is a miraculous substance that can grant enhanced abilities to those few whom it does not drive mad or kill. The minority who can use it safely are known as Green Bones. Custom grants the Green Bones a role as protectors of Kekon and its merchants (whether the merchants want protection or not). Since the Green Bone clans are constantly feuding, the island is far from peaceful.

Ayt Mada plans to transform a divided island into a unified whole.

Ayt Mada of the Mountain Clan is convinced that she is the visionary that Kekon needs. Kekon’s squabbling clans leave the island vulnerable to covetous foreign powers. Ayt MAda sees how all the clans can be brought under her control. She has the ruthlessness needed to do so. But this isn’t her story.

The Mountain’s only significant rival is the No Peak clan. Where the Mountain Clan is led by Ayt alone, No Peak contains the three talented Kaul siblings: Lanshinwan (Lan) the leader, Hiloshudon (Hilo) the warrior, and Shaelinsan (Shae) the strategist. Well, it did contain the three siblings. Lan is now Pillar (clan head); Hilo is Horn (commander). All as planned. But Shae left the clan to marry a foreign officer. She was slated to take over for the aged Doru as Weather Man (strategist). Doru must remain in place.

That’s one big problem for the clan (Doru will not be able to serve forever). The other is Lan’s legendary grandfather Seningtu. The grandfather has officially retired, but has been reluctant to give up actual power and authority (like Heian period emperors or jolly old King Lear). Seningtu is perpetually critical, ever seeking to undermine Lan’s standing in the clan.

So, it’s Mountain Clan versus No Peak Clan, Mada versus Lan, but with complications. Both leaders are aware that conflict would hurt them both badly. Lan is confident that he can out-think Mada; Mada thinks that her long-term plan will leave her in control of the island. This tense standoff is further complicated by the return of Shae.

Shae is reluctant to formally rejoin No Peak, but she help Lan with the Clan’s account books. Her accounting skills prove unexpectedly dangerous to Mada’s cunning plan; a traitor is revealed. Complications ensue and one of the Kaul siblings is killed.

There’s no holding back now. Mada wanted negotiated conquest. She gets all-out gang war.


I could sympathize with poor Ayt Mada. She is selflessly worried about looming foreign invasion. She only wants to keep her beloved homeland free. Yet obstructionists persist in backing her into corners where her only reasonable choice is to murder everyone in her path! It’s no surprise that she’s grumpy much of the time.

I called this a gangster story. While the story does rely on similar tropes this is a bit unfair. The various clans provide protection (often without even being asked) for a fee (mandatory regardless of whether the recipient wants the clan’s services). This may look like a garden variety protection racket, but it has grown out of past struggle, the uprising that freed the island from Shotarian invaders. The clans are war heroes. And heroines. It’s too bad that they have been reduced to predation.

Author Lee makes it easy for readers to follow her intricate interweaving plots. She also sketches characters about whom it is reasonable to care. Readers looking for a collection of power-mad sociopaths squabbling over position and wealth should look elsewhere. The protagonists, great and small, are a mixture of good intentions and lamentable flaws, moments of genius and moments of … mediocrity or even stupidity. Even shark-like Mada has the greater good at heart. Or so she says.

I liked this book. If it sounds like your cup of tea as well, get thee to a bookstore.

Jade City is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).


  • Robert Carnegie

    I don't clearly follow what the political system is; do the clans rule, do the merchants, or is there a political government that is heavily swayed by the will of the Green Bones, and more so if the G.B.s become one clan with one will? Or does the political and legal regime just not apply to the G.B.s or feature in a story about them?

    One thinks about lawless or unpolitical communities like Somewhere Asian, like Pirates Of The Caribbean, like Marvel Comics' setting of Madrpoor - Somewhere Asian with a prince as state figurehead but crime-lords are courtiers. Or Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, which isn't quite like that but has a tyrant called The Patrician and trade guilds - including Thieves, Assassins, and Clowns - whose individual rulers' power is absolute over their members and considerable beyond, but managed by the Patrician skilfully setting one against another, his interest being the city's security, prosperity, and absence of street theatre. Also there are wizards, but that matters less than you think. Finally, the planet Sigma Iotia II, which I looked up, in Star Trek, actually run by Chicago gangsters but by Word Of God not very well.

    • Robert Carnegie

      Oh - I also meant to mention the Dragonriders of Pern, who protect the ground-dwellers from devastating virulent alien living stuff falling from outer space, except when there isn't any. And then there isn't any for quite a while.

      • James Davis Nicoll

        It's not lawless. It's just that despite years of effort to settle on mutually agreeable non-violent means of resolving disputes, there's still a strong tradition (at least among the Green Bones) of simply beating the other side to death. The Green Bones at least pay lip service to only targeting other Green Bones and people who are dumb enough to attack them. It still sucks for the regular people caught between factions but a Green Bone killing a regular person without an acceptable provocation would be subject to disapproval.

        Some of this may be because every Green Bone is related to someone who cannot or does not use jade. Some may be because without the economic efforts of the regular people, there's no voluntary tribute to argue over. Nobody seems to have thought of resource denial just yet.

        The dispute isn't just greed: it's over how best to prevent another occupation.

  • James Davis Nicoll

    There's a civilian government. By intention, it is entirely composed of people who cannot use jade. But pretty much anyone who has enough money and influence to gain public office is a "Lantern Man", someone who either worked with the Green Bone warriors during the struggle of national liberation or whose father and grandfather did and they all prefer one clan or another.

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