I don’t often read modern fantasy (or urban fantasy for that matter), but Jade City by Fonda Lee came highly recommended so I was excited to step out of my comfort zone.
After watching an interview Ms. Lee did with a popular YouTuber who focuses on Fantasy literature, I was very impressed with the level of research and detail Lee included in her books. This book is heavily influenced by martial arts and mafia/crime family stories. The result is a refreshing and fascinating world.
The story revolves around an important family in Kekon a generation after an Earth-shattering war (analogous to World War 2). This family, the No Peak Clan, controls a region of Kekon while other clans, most notably the One Mountain Society, controls other parts – much like crime families control turf in major cities. The story takes place on the brink of a war between these two major, once allied, organizations.
Overlaying all of this is the magic system. Kekon contains Jade, a stone that grants those who touch it magical abilities. The clans control the Jade and their respective Jade Warriors use their enhanced abilities to fight.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t discuss details of the plot any further.
Lee paced this story really well. Action-packed scenes are interspersed with periods to catch our breath and prepare for the next fight. She writes the fights well and each next step in the story is properly set up. I was invested in the plot the whole time.
My only issue with the plot is that at times it could feel predictable. I never wondered what the characters were going to do, I knew what they were going to do. With a few exceptions, I could call every major plot point and beat. I wish Lee would have taken a few more risks and done a few more twists. Also, I think the plot could drag a bit in the beginning, but scale and beauty of the world kept me interested.
Most of the characters in Jade City were not likeable, but I found myself rooting for them anyway and that can only be a credit to Lee and her ability to attribute motives. She had the unenviable task of making mafia crime-bosses likeable. Even though some of them can across as arrogant, violent, and, at times, cruel, I connected with them and wanted them to succeed.
I, also, found myself relating to characters who I was nothing like. I have no background in martial arts or the mafia, yet I could relate to different aspects of these characters.
The only thing I wish I saw was a bit more character arc. One of the characters had a strong arc, but it was predictable. Another character had an arc thrust upon them, but I don’t feel like they lived up to the added responsibility. And a couple of others did not have much development at all. They stayed close to where the story started. I wish I could have seen more change in a few of them.
It can also appear that the minor characters do not have a lot of depth to them. They bit-players and fill their roles perfectly, but I wished to see more from some of them.
To me, the world building is where this book shines. The city that is at times familiar but at others completely foreign is striking in its layers and depth. You can imagine yourself in the streets, in the restaurants, at the festivals.
I also love the magic system. I like the idea of having a displayable talisman that gives power instead of it being this invisible force that we often see in fantasy. The idea of having the magic controlled by clans and mafia families is another stroke of brilliance that sets this world apart.
I have no qualms to pick with the world – I loved it.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a refreshing and interesting take on Fantasy. It was a darker world, but the story didn’t feel dark like a lot of the more popular fantasy of today. I would definitely recommend people reading this book.
I’d rate this one 4 out of 5 stars.