Fonda Lee’s 2022 The Jade Setter of Janloon is a stand-alone crime novella that shares a setting with Lee’s Hugo-nominated Green Bones secondary-world fantasy series.
Pulo dreamed of being a Green Bone warrior but ultimately found his niche as an apprentice to jade setter Isin-jen. Now a skilled artisan, Pulo chaffs at Isin-jen’s peculiar lack of ambition. Why does Janloon’s best jade setter settle for a small facility in a neutral part of the city, when, if he were to ally with one of the great clans, vast wealth could be his?
Pulo reluctantly concludes that personal ambition requires leaving his mentor behind. Before he can put his plan into action, tragedy strikes.
When the alarm in Isin-jen’s store goes off, the jade setter and his apprentice arrive to find that the police already have a culprit under arrest: Isin-jen’s other employee, the talented Malla. However, if Malla is guilty, she must have had an accomplice, for a number of items are missing from the store.
Among the stolen goods, Ayt Madashi’s moon blade. Ayt, who leads the powerful Mountain Clan, would see the theft of her own dagger as a personal affront. Even if Ayt does not choose to violently punish Isin-Jen and Pulo, the theft alone could destroy the shop’s reputation and destroy the business. The blade must be recovered, if possible before Ayt learns about the theft.
Although the police found Malla in the shop, Pulo is certain that the attractive young woman is innocent. (Not just because he’s smitten with her; it doesn’t fit with what he knows about her. Or thinks he knows.) He is sure the police only focused on Malla because she is an Abukei, a member of an indigenous group1 displaced by the current majority. However, Malla’s freedom depends on the true guilty party being found and with Malla in custody and refusing to speak, will the police even bother looking?
As it happens, Pulo has a pretty good idea who the burglar might have been. Isin-jen’s disreputable nephew Nuo is forever sponging off his uncle. Stealing Ayt’s moon dagger — so well known that to try to sell it would be suicide — is just the sort of foolish scheme that the worthless Nuo might try. Or so it seems to Pulo, since Malla is clearly innocent.
If only matters were as straightforward as Pulo believes they are.
Is there a recognized term for mysteries that feature an impending deadline? If so, this is an example: the jade-setters manage to stall Ayt for the moment, but if the matter is not resolved quickly, very bad things will happen.
Pulo has a very useful mix of pluck, determination, and ignorance, not to mention a notable absence of the requisite investigatory skills2. Thus, it takes him the whole novella to find out what really happened
If Lee had cared to add a few twists, this could easily have been a full novel. Conversely, there are other characters from whose perspective this would have been a short story. Novella was just the right length for a Pulo-view narrative.
Readers will be pleased to know that despite her demonstrated ability to deliver a massive trilogy, Lee can also deliver at much shorter lengths. This is a lean, functional little crime story, focusing on the little people beholden to neither of the contending clans featured in the Green Bone saga (and thanks to their neutrality, potentially threatened by both). The reader will likely sympathize with these characters3. I did.
The Jade Setter of Janloon is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK) (but only as an audiobook), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not find it at Book Depository4.
1: Ethnic strife and oppression of indigenous groups is not a monopoly of European cultures. Just ask the Ainu … or the indigenes of many other areas.
2: Pulo does learn on the job, although I can’t imagine he’ll ever use what he learns again. Not if he’s even halfway sensible.
3: Readers may fail to sympathize if they have little patience with inarticulate folks who are smitten with each other but incapable of doing anything that might be risky or embarrassing.
4: I did discover that Lee has an upcoming book of which I was previously unaware, so the trip to Book Depository was not wasted.