Sixteen months have passed since the violent and tragic events of Jade City and the No Peak Clan are far from safe. But it’s not just the Clans at war. The outside world wants in. Jade is a commodity right at the top of everybody’s list and they’re willing to pay for it, in bundles of cash or oceans of blood. Trying to prevent foreign governments, criminal gangs, smugglers, street thugs and everyone in between from taking what doesn’t belong to them makes for interesting alliances, underhand politics, and more than a little bloodshed. No Peak can’t do it alone, but there’s only one other Clan who can help… And it doesn’t take years of Green Bone training to work out that inviting a snake like Ayt Mada in to your home means that you’re going to get bit. There are hard choices to be made. But the Kaul family will do what they must to protect each other, their jade, and their Clan. The stakes are nothing short of their lives.
It’s no understatement to say that Fonda Lee has improved on the first book in every way. While this is most evident in the characterisations, it applies equally to the world-building and plot. Everything is more vibrant, better realised. This feels like a whole new world. Accordingly, while Jade City offered some notion of what was outside of Kekon, this time the stage is truly international. And just like it says in the title, this is a WAR. One that will determine not only the future of the Clans, but Kekon and its place in the world heirarchy. It’s all about power and the deadly games people play to get it, or keep hold of it. The knives are out and nobody is safe.
Yet what gives this book an extra something is that it doesn’t lose sight of how all this political and military bargaining affects real people. From the plight of refugees created by proxy wars and used as bargain chips, to the trickle down persecution of Kekonese immigrants in Espenia, this is real life recreated. Proof, if needed, that Fonda Lee knows not only her world, but ours. Her characters show that in spades. Whatever you might want them to be, they are nothing more or less than themselves. Love them or loathe them, the author always gives us enough to understand them. To the eternal dismay of my buddy readers, I still don’t like Hilo. But I get him. And I can see how skilfully the author creates a reader's emotional investment in my own reaction to Anden, who I genuinely adore. The exploration of his sexuality, of what it means to be himself within his family, or as part of a Kekonese community in Janloon or Espenia is so relatable, so perfectly done that it actually made me somewhat aggrieved when I had to read other POVs. His role as something of an oppositional or questioning force allows a multifaceted exploration of the morality of the ideas and actions of the Kaul family and the Green Bone way of life. It rips away the glamour to reveal what’s hidden beneath- the suffering and loss and scrabbling in the dirt as life bleeds away…
For me, these improvements created something which I hardly felt in the first book: genuine tension. The last 20-30% of Jade War is all out, full-on, page turning fun. It’s made of bold choices, danger, and death. There’s blood and magic, surprises and satisfaction. Best of all, there are more than a few scenes that make you hold your breath, moments that could change the game for some of the players. Or end it. And if that’s not enough, there’s Bero. Ah, Bero. An annoyingly lucky character, and an increasing favourite, is turning into something close to comedy gold. He’s a nobody, a failure, a mistake, but he’s always right there at the turning points of the story. Even if Anden wins my favourite character award, it’s Bero who raises a smile as I wonder what trouble he’s going to get himself into next. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he ends up the Pillar of the reunited Clans…. Who the hell knows?? Whatever happens, we know he’ll do it badly and with a serious attitude to boot. I can’t wait.
At its heart Jade War is about the choices people make. It’s about personal morality and what happens when that clashes with the bonds of family and loyalty, it’s about acting under pressure and doing what needs to be done, it’s about trying to find the ‘right’ way forward even knowing there will be consequences. And trust me, there are.
ARC via Netgalley
Emma Davis, 8/10
“Magic Divides. Power Corrupts. Family Endures.” So reads the tagline for Jade War, Fonda Lee’s sequel to 2017’s Jade City. Everything that made the first book a wonderful read is back and done even better in this second book. Lee doesn’t pull any punches and readers are in for a fabulous ride as they head back to the city of Janloon and see even more of the world Lee has so painstakingly crafted.
Once again, Lee’s characters steal the show. Their relationships and internal struggles feel real and authentic. The issues that the Kaul family faces are issues that all of us could see ourselves facing, if we were magically enhanced martial arts masters and part of powerful gangster families who controlled multinational corporations. Much like the first novel, Jade War, is a mash up of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the Godfather. But what makes it work isn’t the amazing fight scenes, the wonderfully imaged magic, or the stellar world building. What makes the whole thing work is the characters and their small problems that end up writ large. Most family issues don’t end up part of the sociopolitical landscape, but if you’re part of the No Peak or Mountain clans, they just might. Lee’s propensity for writing small problems that are entirely relatable but end up driving the plot in epic ways is what makes her novel stand out. In addition to this, the world building here is second to none. Not only do we get to see more of the capital city of Kekon, Janloon, we also get to see and hear more about the larger world. One character perspective gives us regular glances into life in the Republic of Espenia, and we’re also treated to brief looks at other parts of the world. Lee hasn’t crafted a single kingdom or nation that feels real, she has crafted an entire world, with a worldwide economy and various factions that all make sense, hang together, and feel like you really are simply watching the news while living on an entirely different planet. In addition to the general world building, Lee does an incredibly job crafting the feel and emotions of the Kekonese immigrant community in Espenia. The characters that we meet are achingly authentic. This aspect of the novel is wonderful and I truly can’t say enough good things about it. We rarely see such depth given to immigrant characters in fantasy, and I’d love to see more authors do so. The world building is careful even down to details of who speaks during negotiations depending on the culture they’re from - but in all of these, it never feels like Lee is dumping information on the reader. Instead, it’s all part of the story and flows naturally. Wonderful characters, deep world building, amazing magic, fantastic fight scenes, this book has everything I love packaged in a truly unique setting.
There isn’t much that didn’t work for me here. Two things deserve mentioning. First, the pacing felt a little uneven at times. While the narrative flows well and there wasn’t much down time, per se, I did find that some chapters felt like they slowed the pacing down a little too much, or, conversely, sped it up a little too much. I was always invested enough in the characters that this didn’t affect me too much, but I felt it needed mentioned. The other issue for me is that, several times throughout the novel, Lee will tell us the way something is in the world by jumping to the present tense, before switching back to her normal narrative past. I found this odd. Every time it happened I was jarred out of the story. It’s not overly common, however.
Fonda Lee is a rising star, and Jade War only confirms that assessment. This book is worth moving to the top of your list. Make it your next read or, if you haven’t read Jade City yet, make that one your next read. I’m already waiting for the third book with baited breath. After all, family endures.
Calvin Park, 9/10
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