First things first: Jade War is a great book. If you’re coming here after reading Jade City, and trying to decide if the next one is up to snuff, I say this to you: Yes. It is really very good. Please go now, to the nearest bookshop, buy a copy, and read it.
Alright, so you’re not immediately convinced? Fair enough. As a sequel, Jade War carries all the things that made its predecessor so great: the complex, driven, vividly characterised cast. The personal politics, between personalities so strong that they throw sparks being in the same room. The fast paced, brutal action, which manages to cut into the reader just as much as the participants. The broader questions about colonialism, nationalism, and the place of a country in a world which is rapidly getting a lot bigger. It’s all there. There’s some kick arse martial arts, and there’s quiet emotional moments which are just as gutting as the knife that just opened someone’s chest.
Everything I loved about Jade City is in here, and it’s been turned up to eleven.
I really love the way that the story interweaves the family dynamic of the No Peak clan, a family dynasty managing a less than entirely legitimate business empire, with the broader politics. A lot of the focus here is on No Peak’s actions, its rivalry with another clan who effectively run the other half of their nascent nation. So we see turf wars in action, and long-held grudges boiling over. But there are also pragmatic power sharing arrangements, as both clans have to deal with third parties trying to impinge on their business during conflict. And there are moments when edged words in a sharply cut suit can turn into a confrontation with a blade. The world of No Peak is a world always on the edge of violence. Stepping back from the brink, yes, absolutely. Prepared to accept partnership[p? Or defeat? Perhaps. But the virtues of a warrior code - of honour, of boundaries to the acceptable – are rubbing up against a modernity which has less use for a warrior aristocracy, and more use for those who can make enormous amounts of money. Kekon, the nation of the clans, is a small place with a crucial resource, sat between far larger powers, trying to avoid being sucked into their feuds. But as a relatively new nation, Kekon is still trying to decide what sort of place it will be. That struggle is played out in the high chambers of the law, and in bodies found floating by the docks at midnight, and in the hearts and minds of all the characters. This is a story of a country looking to become…well, a nation.
But if that’s one of the larger ideas, it floats at the back, in the liminal spaces, in the pauses while characters decide how to react. More directly, we see Anden, one of the central characters from the previous book, packed off to another country in an effort to both hide him away, and give him time to sort himself out. It’s a curiously touching, self-reflective journey that Anden is on, balanced by his slowly growing relationship with a group of Kekon refugees, second or third generation children of those who escaped before Kekon’s independence. There’s some wonderful culture clash here, and some wry commentary on how these expatriates feel like they need to be more Kekon than the Kekonese – and Anden can see the fierce joy they bring to their adopted home, and to their own half-remembered culture, even as he struggles to map their experience to his own.
Which all sounds very complicated and worthy – but it’s beautifully written, the larger issues living in harmony with Anden’s personal journey, and with his desire to help out his friends, and maybe prove that he can be a good person without having to match family expectations.
Which applies to Shae, too. Having been dragged back into family politics in the previous book, Shae is now a woman at the top of her game. She’s ruthless, sure, to her enemies. But also has great love for her family, perhaps matched only by her frustration with them. Shae is a woman filled with passionate intensity, but also with the sort of hard-edged calculation that the modern No Peak needs. Shae’s a leader, there’s no doubt of that. One who thinks fast, and backs up fine words with impressive strategy and sharp blades. Shae’s journey is perhaps one of re-integration, to match Anden’s transition. But Shae isn’t afraid to say what she things, and to back it up. She also has her own personal struggle, trying to find time and space for personal matters while running the core competencies of a corporation crossed with a crime syndicate. It’s not fragility, as much as a recognition that she’s human, and that family connection isn’t the only thing that people need to get through their day. That said, if Shae’s personal conflicts let her have some vulnerability, it only emphasises the face she puts on outside the walls of family, the face with the knife-edge smile.
Basically, she kicks arse. More please.
Of course there’s Hilo too, the man who now leads the clan. The man who never wanted to do so, the man who has found himself in a cold peace after a hot war. Hilo struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy, I think, and with grief. His is the most traditional role, and in fairness, it’s wonderful to see him in it – both on the streets, with blood on his hands, and in the boardroom, trying to fathom the intricacies of a deal. Hilo is out of his depth, a man taken from the role he was born to play into something else. His efforts to surface from the emotional and political waters slowly rising over his head are an art of joy and sorrow.
Anyway. They’re backed by an expansive and expanding cast; there are so many minor characters I wanted to see more of. A special shout out to the head of the rival clan, whose machinations are an utter delight to uncover. For the reader, that is, less so for our heroes. In a different series, this hard-edged woman might be the hero. As it is, she’s a razor cut in every page. But they’re all wonderful. Anden’s foster family is by turns welcoming and practical, and the efforts by other clan family members to get involved in affairs are a pure delight in precision plotting and top-notch characterisation.
I won’t give the game away on the plot. It’s too much fun for that, filled with victories, tragedies, and enough reversals that you’re never sure when one is going to turn into the other. There’s more than a little of the (literally) arse-kicking martial arts action you’ve been pining for, and it’s leavened with some richly-lived family drama, a soupcon of geo-politics, and a narrative with a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the larger themes of family, colonialism, nationalism, global integration, resource management and economic diversity, put through the lens of the personal stories of people we care about.
So, we’re back where we started. It’s a great book. I’ve definitely not done it justice here, so take that one away with you: it’s a great book. If you’ve read Jade City, you need to get on this to see what happens next. If you haven’t, do that first – and then go pick this one up.