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.