Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Jade City - Fonda Lee

Jade City is the start of a new series by Fonda Lee. It feels like a blend of eighties kung-fu movies, gangster shows, and cunningly wrought, emotional family drama, blended together into one very appetising cocktail.

The world of Jade City is one with several layers. It’s set on an island which overthrew colonial rule a generation ago. There’s a legacy of occupation here, one where immediate family, clan and associates are all bound together strongly. The social strings which tie these groups together are forged in a legacy of struggle against an external oppressor. With that oppressor vanquished – or at least temporarily removed from the equation – the society is out of equilibrium. The text isn’t afraid to embrace the exploration of clan based societies after declaring independence, and it’s all the better for it. This is a land where the government is beholden to families, and those families drive the political agenda. If there are a few institutions not under familial control, they’re the exception. This is problematic, and the text addresses it to some degree - the melting pot of post-independence prosperity is on the boil, as a second generation comes into power, and attempts to work out how to keep it. That generation has a certain familiarity, leaping offstage and screen at the reader.

The leaders of the central clans, children of fighters for independence, are clever, ruthless people. They have a trade in Jade, which grants greater physical power to its owners – superhuman speed, strength, acuity. They’re ready to do anything to protect this trade from outsiders, and from each other. The thematic blend is one of gangster flicks and kung-fu movies, where the hard-souled line of “Just business” meet the operatic acrobatics of combat as-art. Which is to say, that the leaders of these clans, these owners of socio-economic respectability, are deadly. Fast-paced, hard-souled killers, skating on the edges of respectability. This isn’t a generation willing to settle down into rich respectability, but one determined to flex its economic muscle along with the physical, in the name of family destiny.

If the idea of gangster families running an island for profit, and defending their privileges with supernatural martial arts sings out to you, then this is probably the right book.

That the action is backed by some strong and nuanced character work is certainly not incidental. We follow one of the two ruling clans of the nascent nation, watching the conflicts between those who created independence, those who have to live in it, and those who have to live with them. It’s a family drama, in some ways, filled with past slights and future hopes. Still, the people with whom we spent our time are, between being terrifying exemplars of superhuman strength and agility, no less human than the rest of us. The youngest of the family has returned from a sojourn abroad, somewhat chastited and perhaps even more unrepentant, determined to cut her own path away from the family business. The middle child is fast, impulsive, unforgiving, a trained killer in the service of the family, with a ready smile and a hard loyalty for those he follows, and those he leads. Their elder brother is cool, collected and troubled, living up to the example of a father gently shuffled out of the way, working forever to live up to the image of a national hero.

The interaction between family members, and their followers, is masterful. It shows off the bonds of loyalty and obligation, and doesn’t flinch awy from troubled waters. This is a family. It’s complicated, damaged, full of anger and unrealised ambition alongside the love – but one with a warmth and loyalty at the heart which keep the characters sympathetic and human.

Plot-wise, it’s…well, there’s a lot going on. Territory seizures. Hand to hand fighting. The question of sovereignty and how a nation should be governed (and by whom). There’s old grudges to be settled, heroism, and new feuds being started. Jealousy and rage are here in spades, alongside faith, trust and humanity. It’s a complex stew of characters with emotional depth and their own motives, mixed in with some kick-ass fight scenes and moments of tension with a razor’s edge.
This is a wonderfully drawn work, bringing a flawed, powerful family to life within an imaginatively detailed world, embracing some hard-hitting, bloodily realised action. It’s a very exciting work – you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

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