REVIEW: Jade City by Fonda Lee

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

Jade City is Fonda Lee’s World Fantasy Award-winning urban fantasy set in the Asian-inspired island nation of Kekon. Jade City is the nickname for Janloon, the capital of Kekon, which is controlled by mafia-style gangs led by organized crime families.

Cover for Jade City by Fonda LeeThe two most prominent gangs are the No Peak and Mountain clans, who clash over control of city neighborhoods, but more importantly over the mining and trade of Kekonese jade. When worn by someone with the appropriate training and genetic predisposition, jade gives the wearer enhanced abilities in fighting and perception. A newly developed drug called SN1 (or “shine”) can extend these abilities to non-Kekonese people, enabling the use of jade as a dangerous new weapon at a global scale. The combination of jade and shine offers a short-circuit path to power and has led to the illegal production and trade of both substances.

The three main characters in Jade City are the Kaul siblings, who have inherited control of the No Peak clan from their grandfather. The eldest, Lan, is the Pillar (leader) of the clan and struggles to provide strong leadership while dealing with several personal issues. Hilo is Lan’s fiery younger brother who serves as the Horn (chief fighter) of the clan. Hilo is impulsive and quick-tempered, but he has absolute loyalty to his family. The third principal character, Shae, is their younger sister who has just returned to Kekon after completing her education abroad. Shae struggles to discern her future, trying to balance her family’s expectations with finding her own path.

Fonda Lee brilliantly captures the intersecting web of conflicts experienced by the main characters. Inter-generational conflict within the No Peak clan arises between the young generation of the Kaul family and their grandfather, who still wields substantial behind-the-scenes authority. There is also sibling infighting among Lan, Hilo, and Shae, whose family loyalty often manifests itself in divergent ways owing to their very different personalities. Of course, the most violent rivalry occurs between the No Peak and Mountain clans. Jade City also hints at the conflict between Kekon and foreign countries, which will become a major focus later in the series.

Fonda Lee adopts a fully immersive approach to worldbuilding in Jade City. This is a bit disorienting at first but soon rewards the reader, pulling them into the story. Jade City has a cinematic quality that reminds me of watching The Godfather or Goodfellas. Fonda Lee’s writing is so captivating that, as a reader, I felt like an extra on the set of a movie, watching the action up-close.

Speaking of action, Fonda Lee is especially adept at writing fight scenes. As a black belt martial artist, the detail that Fonda Lee brings to these sequences makes them feel especially realistic. Moreover, the enhanced abilities provided by jade remind me of the best fight scenes from Hong Kong and Taiwanese martial arts movies. The emotional intensity of these action sequences is matched by several heartbreaking scenes throughout the novel.

Jade City is a breathtakingly original, pulse-pounding urban fantasy and a triumph in every sense. Jade City is the first book in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, which continues with Jade War and Jade Legacy.


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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.