Have you ever read through a new series that was so good, so engrossing, that you feel like you’re waking up the night after downing a six-pack? Like, you literally have a reading hangover?
This is me with Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga. I don’t understand how this series managed to miss me personally; my first introduction was to the series was very late last year, around the release of the third book. Which turned out to be very very convenient for me, as any kind of waiting after speeding through the first two would have probably killed me.
So what made Jade City—and the entire Green Bone Saga—so binge-worthy? Imagine if you took the Godfather series, added magic-supplemented martial arts, and then left John Woo to direct it. It also has everything else you could ask for in a fantasy action novel: great action scenes, tension-filled dramas and a setting that, despite the fantastical elements, feels real.
The first book, Jade City, is set on the island of Kekon, which, while currently independent, has faced foreign occupation in the past. Much of the attraction of Kekon to these foreign powers lies in the island’s jade. The Kekonese have a special relationship with jade; when worn, it enhances their senses and brings grants them a supernatural level of strength. Those with the right genetic disposition and sufficient training to wear jade are known as the Green Bones, while those born completely insensitive to the mineral’s powers are Stone Eyes. Overexposure or improper use of jade leads to ‘The Itches’ which drives people mad. Foreigners can’t use the stone safely, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they are trying as hard as they can to find a way to do so.
After securing the independence of Kekon after the Many Nations War (A World War II analogue), the nation’s liberation force shatters due to petty infighting. This lead to the formation of a number of independent clans, which together have more influence in Kekon than the rather weak central government. In Kekon, Mafia Law is basically The Law. Which, while great for drama, is really not helping the island’s stability.
The two most dominant clans in the capital of Janloon are the internationally-minded No Peak Clan and the isolationist Mountain Clan. At the start of Jade City, we follow four members of No Peak: siblings Kaul Lan, Kaul Hilo, Kaul Shae; and cousin Anden Emery. Lan is the young leader (Piller) of the clan, after the death of his father. He’s meant to be the more calm and diplomatic of the siblings, especially in contrast to Hilo, the hot-headed and traditionalist younger brother. Shae, the estranged sister, has spent the last two years overseas, ignoring both Kekonese and family politics to the point of refusing to wear her jade. And Arden? A young half Kekonese student whose own mother went mad with the Itches and who owes his place and protection of the family to the Kauls’ grandfather.
While all four of the main characters have very different personalities, the overall narrative is very balanced without favouring one family member over another. The dynamics between all four of them feels like it walked straight out of the Godfather. And just like the Godfather, the greatest conflicts of all are driven any the division between the individual and the family. The Kauls’ greatest threat is the ruthless Ayt Mada, leader of the mountain clan, who may no longer be as isolationist as she once professed. And the tensions between the two clans are only getting worse with the increase in illegal jade trafficking and the foreign production of the drug Shine—which gives the user an artificial tolerance to jade.
This is where I have to pause and spend some time getting giddy over both the setting and the action scenes. The action itself is vivid, very well choreographed and fast-paced—which is remarkable when you’re working with the written word! It’s like reading your favourite Hong Kong action films, however, it would be a mistake to think of Janloon as a carbon copy of Hong Kong. Instead, Janloon and Kekon seem to be influenced by a number of other east and south-east cultures to the point that they could stand on their own. The island setting is reminiscent of Hong Kong or Taiwan; the history of occupation could be shared by a number of countries, but it most put me in mind of Korea, while the characters names had a more South-East Asian vibe. This mixture of influences gives the setting a very lively, lived-in feel.
And I’m pretty damned sure their beloved moon blades are Dha or Daab swords under a different name.
While Jade City focuses mostly on the politics of the Kauls and Kekon, Jade War spreads its wings and shows what happens when a family-run criminal syndicate starts to stick its fingers in too many foreign-made pies. Just like the ‘Ndrangheta, the Kekonese clans have started infiltrating other countries, getting involved in large sectors of their legal and illegal economies, and trying to influence international trade. Add the growing threat of foreign re-invasion of Kekon, and the stakes get even higher. The main financial prize for both of the clans is the wealthy and very military-driven Republic of Espenia. Fonda Lee seems to take great pleasure in detailing the political machinations between the different nations, and I for one really enjoyed following along. And just like Kekon, The Republic of Espenia, while it shares more than a few similarities to the United States, is distinct enough on its own that you could believe that it could be it’s own separate, but culturally similar, nation. (The moniker Spennies makes me laugh though because it puts me in mind of Seppos…)
While the first half of Jade War starts off rather slowly, with the need to expand the setting and move the players into place, the second half is made up of a series of escalating scenes that build the pressure to an almost explosive level. There are also several familiar tropes that you think are going to play out in a comfortable fashion but there then turned rather nastily on their heads.
And I was NOT prepared
In the final instalment, Jade Legacy, the cat is truly out of the bag now. Jade is no longer just the purview of the Kekonese and there is no going back. If Jade War set out to explore how the fight over jade clocks over on a global scale, Jade Legacy shows how the fight for jade affects the next generation of Kauls. Unlike the previous two novels, this instalment spans decades, often integrating significant time jumps between chapters. Despite this, the narrative manages to keep pace, perhaps to a greater degree than the first half of Jade War.
These temporal shifts not only show how this long-running war of attrition effects already familiar faces, but how their legacies affect their families as well. It also allows Lee to show off how the City of Janloon evolves over the years, as well as showing how jade use might develop and change over the same timeframe now that it is in the hands of the non-Kekonese, who certainly don’t share the same cultural ties with the mineral as the Kekonese might
And despite the increasing breadth and depth of the story, we do eventually return to where we started: the Ayt family and the Mountain Clan. But we are taken on an emotional roller coaster to get there
God, it’s been so long since finishing a series has left me so bereft. Fonda Lee gave me everything I could’ve wanted on a platter—but then punched me in the chest a few times for the privilege of my enjoyment. I couldn’t have had a better start to the reading year than The Green Bone Saga, and I strongly encourage anyone with similar tastes to pick this one up.
However, this has left me looking for the fantasy equivalent of a Berocca. I am open to recommendations?