Jade City By Fonda Lee Review | Asian Gangsters and Martial Arts and Yet, I Expected More

JADE CITY’s been on my TBR for years now, and I’m happy to have finally gotten to it! I have many blogger friends who love this trilogy and would die for its characters. Me? While I enjoyed it, I can’t really say the same. Objectively, it’s an extensive book that tackles a plethora of issues with excitement. Something about it – I can’t pinpoint what – seemed like it was missing in this book. But let’s break it down first.

“The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master. On my honor, my life, and my jade.”

Set in the imaginative, isolationist island of Kekon, the resource jade rules one and all. The power to wield the bioenergetic nature of jade is power over the people. With that, clans are established to maintain peace and preside over territories. JADE CITY follows the No Peak clan, one of the largest two, as they experience a downward spiral as they struggle to keep the clan from going into war with their biggest competitor, the Mountain clan. The sibling trio that is a part of the ruling family of the No Peak clan consists of Lan, the eldest brother and Pillar, Hilo, the middle child and Horn, and Shae, the youngest daughter who wants nothing to do with the clan politics.

Lan – The Pillar

“No Peak defends and avenges our own. You wrong any one of us, you wrong us all. You seek to war with us, and we will return it a hundredfold. No one will take from us what is ours!”

Lan is a generous and just ruler in a culture that thrives on competition and winning. He’s adept at sorting out the politics of the clan and appeasing their government supporters, but struggles in his role due to external pressures. Throughout the book, Lan is trying to stop war from coming, even though readers know that it is inevitable. He also balances these growing pressures with physical stressors from his body’s inability to handle the jade he wears. In this world, jade gives you power, but it’s a precarious cliff to be on, for if not trained right and handled wisely, it can lead you to the depths of mental and physical pain. Suffice it to say, Lan’s got a lot of things on his mind as the leader of the clan and it was a bit sad to see a lack of support he got from the closest people around him, like his grandfather.

Hilo – The Horn

“Life was short. He understood and embraced the simplicity of his role: lead and manage his Fists, protect his family’s territory, defend No Peak from its enemies. Enjoy himself along the way.”

Hilo balances out Lan’s peace-orientated mentality with his hot-headedness and connections to the Fists and Fingers of their clan (or, the soldiers of the clan). He’s fiercely devoted to No Peak clan, but is much more coarse and rough with the way he handles situations. Politics isn’t his thing, but beating people up is. In the book, he gets needled by petty territorial arguments with the Mountain clan that builds up to something larger and uncontrollable. While I enjoyed his action-driven attitude, I really believe he could have had more character development when he experienced a sudden shift in role. From beginning to end, he remains impetuous and sensitive and quick to anger. His most underutilized resource is his lover Wen, who as a stone-eyed, is impervious to the power of jade. I think her character has a lot of potential in the next books to come and am a bit appalled at Hilo’s close-mindedness when it comes to her role.

Shae – The Rebel

“She was at last the independent, worldly, educated woman who’d risen above the savagery and insular nature of her jade- and testosterone-fueled family. She was supposed to feel free and unencumbered, not lonely and uncertain.”

Shae comes back to the family after fleeing for the past two years with a business degree, broken relationship, and adamancy to stay cleer of the No Peak clan. It goes along with the grudges of youth, where her foreign lover and willingness to partner with a foreign country became unforgiven, and a sibling rivalry between her and Hilo caused undeniable tension in power dynamics. Biggest of all is that she’s sick of dealing with this clan politics that’s male-centric. And I totally got that. Joke’s on her, because she finds herself being pulled into the politics in more ways than one, and her reckoning was a really great one. What can I say? She’s so fucking powerful when she finds her place in the story, and that was one thing I looked forward to.

Clearly, you can see that the author goes in-depth with characterizations. She also does not hold back with the world, as readers are slowly introduced to the crime-centered politics of Kekon and the addictive qualities of jade. The infrastructure is a new one, as it’s been only one generation since the leaders of the clans successfully rebelled against imperialism. (Side note: I do wonder at the function of the government; there’s a placeholder monarchy that is there in name only, and the characters mention that “gold and jade can’t go together,” establishing a checks and balances that equate to not one group hoarding the jade and power. Still, I struggled to grasp the role of the government if the island is so clan-driven other than economic necessity.) Because of that, there’s a clear imbalance and growing tension of power dynamics, which leads to the downward spiral of outright clan war that I mentioned earlier. The build-up? It felt nonexistent until about halfway into the book. I have to admit, the only thing keeping me going in the first 40% of the story was learning more about the world rather than the characters’ stories. The climax? Stimulating, but also missing something.

For me, what completes a family drama as extensive as the one Lee writes, with such high stakes in regards to clan control and a legacy to pass down, is the ability to utilize all available resources to resolve the overlying tension created. And this happens, but separately, so it feels less triumphant than it actually is. The final parts of the book fizzled out pretty fast, and it kind of left me thinking: “I read through 500 pages for this kind of denouement?” It certainly wasn’t bad, but I believe I just expected… more.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed JADE CITY and am eager to get to the sequel! I honestly think the hype got to me, and I expected more in terms of character growth and victory from the No Peak clan. At the same time, their losses are shaping their eventual growth (at least, I expect it to more in the next books) as the Kaul family discover how they fit in this island of nationalism and isolation – an island that hoards jade for the power it gives and the control it takes. Lee jams exceptional action sequences, gangster politics, and motive-driven characters to create an explosive world that lives up to its reputation of savagery and ruthlessness. Truly a reflection of the hard-boiled Hong Kong crime films that created a movement, balanced with the martial-arts-focused wuxia elements of historical China. Read it for the family, the feud, and the fantastical elements that make the world so unique. 

CWTW label

addiction (drugs), sexy times, heavy violence, discrimination


5 thoughts on “Jade City By Fonda Lee Review | Asian Gangsters and Martial Arts and Yet, I Expected More

  1. This is such a wonderful, in-depth review Aila! I’m glad to hear that you ended up enjoying it for the most part, because it’s one of my favourites! The second book definitely offers more character development, so I do hope you continue with it!

  2. Oh wow this sounds really amazing??? I’m even more hyped to read it now! I always love reading stories about dealing with family legacy and young rulers finding their place as well as well-developed characters, and this book seems to have it all! I’m really excited! 🤩

  3. Stupid fingers.

    I liked this book but I totally get where you’re coming from. While reading, I kept waiting for ~the moment~ but this book felt very expositiony. I hear wonderful things about the sequel though.

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