NPR Review: 'Jade War,' By Fonda Lee Fonda Lee's Jade War is the second volume in her sweeping yet intimate saga about two clans on a small island nation, battling for control over supplies of the magical jade that powers their fighters.
NPR logo 'Jade War' Is A Magical, Operatic Crime And Family Drama

Review

Book Reviews

'Jade War' Is A Magical, Operatic Crime And Family Drama

Imagine an alternate world with me for a moment — one where Mario Puzo's The Godfather didn't define crime drama for half a century, where mob stories and their relentless imitators didn't hog all the oxygen in the market. Imagine a clean slate. A place of no comparisons and no rules.

Imagine a moment in an impossible coffee shop, where some people have gathered to talk about a story they've been working on together. One of them, sure, is Puzo — sitting there, drinking his espresso, and talking about the importance of family, loyalty and the terrible things that men do. Jin Yong, the wuxia writer, is there. Gillian Flynn is trying to explain the narrative beats of motherhood and wifehood and the murderous, furious, vengeful potential of women wronged. Quentin Tarantino is in the corner demanding more dramatic speeches, disco music and blood. And sitting at the head of the table is Fonda Lee — poised, smiling, with a cup of tea and a mean gleam in her eye.

Lee has seen boardroom wars. She knows what it feels like to take a punch and get back up again. She knows family. She knows honor. She has advised huge companies on corporate strategy and fought as a black belt martial artist. She listens to everyone around her, nods her head and says, "Don't worry. I got this." Then she starts to write.

Jade City, that was her first adult novel — exactly the kind of book that would've shaped an entire world of entertainment if The Godfather hadn't gotten there first. In a universe just one step away from ours, Kekon is a small island nation — proud, independent, dangerous. It is the only place on earth where "bioenergetic jade" is mined, but not the only place where it is wanted. Because this jade? It can turn those trained in its use into wuxia superheroes: Move like the wind, jump twenty feet straight up, turn your skin to steel — no problem.

In Kekon's capital Janloon (kinda like Hong Kong), two powerful families, the Mountain and No Peak clans, battle for control. The Pillars of the clans are at each other's throats, deploying their Green Bone fists and fingers to grapple in the streets while Weather Men advise them, and their loyal Lanterns control every market from international shipping to local beauty parlors.

Lee has created an entire modern world here, complete and round with its own history, customs, traditions, language. In Jade City she built it up and tore it down again. And in her newest, Jade War, she shakes up the pieces that remain and sets half the world on fire.

Because Jade War is a bigger novel than the first — broader and wider, a story of smugglers, politics and C-suite assassinations as much as it is of street corner brawls. In public, the Mountain and No Peak clans have announced a truce, ending the street war that has raged throughout Janloon and cost Kekon dearly. But in private, both sides (hurt badly by losses suffered in the previous book and looking for vengeance) are scrambling to recover their strength and strike the final killing blow that will leave their clan in sole possession of the island's jade supplies — now more valuable than ever, because there's a war brewing between neighbors and allies of Kekon; the first to be fought by foreign soldiers and mercenaries hopped up on jade.

All the while, the No Peak clan is in disarray. Hilo was once the Horn of No Peak — the clan's chief military leader — but now, after his brother's death in the fighting, he has become Pillar (the boss of bosses) and has to prove that there's more to him than just muscle. Hilo's sister Shae is his Weather Man, and though she's plenty smart (and plenty devious), there are those in the clan that don't trust her yet. Anden, their adopted brother, is exiled for refusing to wear jade. Hilo's wife, Wen, is a spy. And Ayt, Pillar of the rival Mountain clan, is scheming to bring them all down.

Lee moves between these worlds with the grace of a dancer. She is just as comfortable in the wide shot of international relations as she is close-up, in a conversation between estranged brothers or dire enemies or a husband and wife in bed. She can walk a battlefield as artfully as she describes a knife fight, and all of it is beautiful, oddly restrained, compulsively readable as Lee bounces between viewpoints, characters and storylines that each spend hundreds of pages naturally converging in cinematic, firework-bright bursts of action.

If The Godfather never was, Jade War (and Jade City) would be how we define generational organized crime stories today. Not the mob, not pasta and Sunday gravy, not Tommy guns and cannoli, but Green Bones at a nightclub wearing their jade studs and talon knives, and the Kaul family of No Peak clan gathered around the dinner table, eating fried shrimp and chicken stew with ginger. It works because Lee understands how the smallest things — an unrequited love, a sudden trip to the emergency room with a sick child — can disrupt the plans of clans and nations as much as any bloody street fight or assassination can.

She juggles the personal and the epic with deft, admirable skill, weaving a story that is equally sweeping and intimate; a magical, almost operatic crime and family drama that feels all the more true because all of her jade-fueled supermen (and women) come with human hearts that bend and break the same as ours.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.