TITLE: Jade City (The Green Bone Saga #1)
AUTHOR: Fonda Lee
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Memory works in strange ways. Sometimes it takes ages to dig up a particular memory and other times they come back unbidden when we least expect them. (Or least want them.) And then there are times when memories are triggered by something external. That was the case when I started reading Jade City by Fonda Lee, which brought back memories of the Hong Kong gangster movies from the 1980s to 1990s and terrible copycat films that local Philippine movie companies made to cash in on their popularity.
First in the Green Bone Saga, Jade City is set in Kekon, a country that reads a lot like the aforementioned 1980s-1990s Hong Kong. In Kekon, magical jade is the most valuable resource the county has to offer, and the only ones who can use jade are the people known as Green Bones, who have the ability to channel its magic into amazing feats of strength and endurance. Divided into clans, the Green Bones of Kekon do not administer the country directly but rule from the shadows, striving to do what is best for the people.
The two most important clans, No Peak and the Mountain, are responsible for ensuring that Kekon continues to prosper even as they maintain tight control of the jade trade. However, tensions have been increasing between the Kauls and the Ayts, the ruling families of No Peak and the Mountain, respectively, and when an unexpected event shatters the very heart of the Kaul family, blood spills onto the streets of Janloon, the capital city, as the two clans engage in all-out clan war. As the Kauls struggle to hold their clan together against their rivals, their decisions will change not only the course of their clan but of Kekon itself.
As I mentioned earlier, this brought back memories of the 1990s because that is the exact milieu the author has used as the basis for this novel’s setting. Although this is a secondary-world fantasy (to a degree), there are plenty of elements that will be familiar to the reader. Airplanes exist, as do cars, and there are trains and buses and bicycles and many other modern technological conveniences. What do not exist, however, are cell-phones, laptops, and the Internet. This sharply defines the novel’s setting for the reader, and depending on how old he or she is, will be intimately familiar to them or utterly foreign. I grew up in the 1990s, but it took a long while for the Internet to finally arrive here in the Philippines, so in a way reading this novel is like settling into a world that is familiar to me, but which I know is long gone. This recognition is encapsulated in a small scene towards the beginning of the novel in which a character uses a pay phone at an airport. If one moment can truly capture the specific time period this novel occupies, it is that: an image that used to be so familiar but is now long gone, a part of the past
However, I mentioned earlier that this novel reminds me specifically of Hong Kong gangster movies, and there is a good reason for that. Take a look at the following excerpt:
“Tar,” said Hilo, but there was no need; both the Maiks were already moving. Kehn went into the restroom; Tar leapt to the top of the stairs, caught the thief on the patio, and threw him bodily back through the broken screen door. A collective gasp and a number of screams broke out from the diners as the boy came flying back inside, hit the ground, and skidded to the top of the staircase.
Tar stepped into the building after him, stopping to clear the wreckage of the entryway. Before the boy could scramble to his feet, Tar palmed his head and force fit to the floor. The thief reached for a weapon, a small gun, but Tar tore it from him and flung it through the broken patio door and into the harbor. The boy gave a carpet-muffled cry as the Green Bone’s knee ground down on his forearm and the paper packet was ripped from his white-knuckled grip. All this occurred so fast most of the onlookers did not see it.
Outside, Hilo paused to pull a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. They were expensive Espenian cigarettes; he had a weakness for them. He put one in his mouth and looked around. “How about over there,” he suggested.
The Maik brothers hauled the teenagers away from the Twice Lucky and pushed them down the gravel slope to the edge of the water, out of sight from the road. The pudgy Abukei boy cried and struggled the whole way; the other one was limp and silent. The Maiks threw the thieves to the ground and began to beat them. Heavy, rhythmic blows to the torso, pounding the ribs, stomach, and back. Smacks to the face until the boys’ features were swollen almost beyond recognition. No strikes to the vital organs, the throat, or the back of the skull. Kehn and Tar were good Fists; they were not careless and would not get carried away by bloodlust.
Hilo smoked a cigarette and watched.
This scene could have come right out of an early John Woo or Ringo Lam film. Indeed, I find it easy to imagine a young Chow Yun-fat (circa 1989’s The Killer, perhaps) in the role of Hilo, his features dimly illuminated by the glowing tip of the cigarette as somewhere offscreen the reader (viewer?) hears grunts and cries of pain as people get beaten to within an inch of their lives.
(Some readers, especially those unfamiliar with Hong Kong action films, might be more inclined to think of Tarantino’s work, specifically Reservoir Dogs, when reading the above excerpt. That is not surprising, as Tarantino’s inspiration for Reservoir Dogs was Lam’s 1987 movie City on Fire - though some argue that what Tarantino did might be more akin to plagiarism.)
But the similarities to Hong Kong action movies are deeper than simply visual; they extend to the elements of the novel and to the themes, as well. For example: like many of the characters of the early Woo and Lam films, the characters of Jade City are criminals, with the clans sharing many similarities to Triad criminal organisations in terms of organisation and terminology. These characters operate under a strict code of ethics termed in the novel as “aisho,” which determines how to respectfully interact with ordinary folk both high and low, and with members of rival clans. Of course, not everyone follows aisho in the manner it needs to be followed, and it is perceived breaches in aisho that create a lot of the tension and conflict in the novel.
The novel’s similarities to Hong Kong action movies are also in the themes. In those movies, duty, loyalty, and sacrifice are important and they are also important in Jade City. Throughout the novel, characters struggle with their own understanding of loyalty and duty, and what they need to do in accordance with their own understanding of those ideas; more so if it comes in direct conflict with their own, personal desires.
And speaking of the characters, it is with them that this novel diverges from the movies that inspired it. One of the key differences is how women take on more prominent roles than they do in Hong Kong action movies. In the movies, women are either secondary villains or love interests that need to be protected - or fridged, which happens quite often. Either way, they do not take active roles in the plot and are often relegated to the sidelines.
In this novel, however, women are far more prominent, taking active roles as enforcers (Fingers, in the novel’s parlance), businesspeople, politicians - even Pillars, the term for clan leaders. To be sure, they are not always given absolute equal footing with their male counterparts - misogyny is still a feature of society and Green Bone culture - but the women are shown fighting against it, and they do not let it stop them from getting what they need or want from the world.
This novel also shows women acting in concert without the oversight of the men around them in order to accomplish their goals - goals that are often independent of the goals of their male counterparts. These moments tend to happen further into the novel when the plot becomes a little more spread out and the characters are given room to really grow into their roles, but there are two key scenes that show women doing things away from the sight of their menfolk. Since it happens further into the novel I cannot quote them here due to spoilers, but the reader will recognise them once he or she comes upon them because they are vital to the novel’s climax, and will likely have repercussions for the sequels that come after this book.
Another key difference between Jade City and the movies that inspired it lies in the depth and nuance of the themes explored. Though themes of duty, loyalty, and sacrifice are common to both Hong Kong action movies and this novel, Jade City expands those themes in a way that the movies do not. For instance, in exploring the concept of loyalty, the novel explores it from the usual angle of loyalty to one’s family and clan but also includes questions about loyalty to tradition and to the nation as a whole. Inter-generational conflict is a key component of the plot, with the younger Kauls coming up against not just an older generation of family members and allies, but longer-standing ideals and customs that are integral to the culture and society of Kekon. The decision of whether or not to be loyal to those ideals and people is a question that plagues the characters throughout the novel and influences their decisions throughout.
As for duty and sacrifice, those are thoroughly explored as well, in a way that is more personal and nuanced when compared to the way those themes are explored in the movies. I suppose that is inevitable, since there is more opportunity for nuance in a novel, but what I like about Jade City in particular is that, in focusing on the importance of duty to all the characters in the novel, it creates depth not only for the protagonists but also the antagonists. I like a villain I cannot straightforwardly like or dislike, and that is very much the case in this novel. The same can be said for the protagonists, for that matter - they are all very human, which means that sometimes I agree with what they are doing, and sometimes I disagree wholeheartedly and simply cannot get behind their way of thinking. This level of characterisation is one of the highlights of this novel and makes me want to see what happens to these characters in the sequels.
This brings me to the novel’s plot. While, again, it does share similarities to Hong Kong action movies, the novel puts a greater focus on the characters, who in their turn drive the novel’s plot. The films are generally more plot-driven, with a great deal of emphasis on the fight scenes, which can be long, drawn-out, and heavily choreographed. In Jade City, though there are still fight scenes (and well-written, at that), greater emphasis is placed on the characters, and how their decisions and actions influence the course of the story - for better or for worse. This means that the story goes a bit more slowly than action aficionados might strictly like, but the reader is more than compensated for the slightly-slower pace with strong characterisation and an immersive world.
Overall, Jade City is an exceptional novel that nods to the Hong Kong action films, retaining the best aspects of said movies and then going even further by creating amazing characters (especially female characters), a character-driven plot, and a deep exploration of themes, with only a very little sacrifice of the hard-driving action that characterises action films. As someone who appreciates a good fight scene as much as I appreciate a great story and characters surrounding that fight scene, the fact that the novel is able to provide all three only means that I will be back for more when the sequels come out.