Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga books have garnered numerous SFF award nominations and have been talked about quite a lot on social media. And with good reason: this was the most stressful reading experience I think I’ve ever had. There are just so many setups for things to go horribly wrong that I almost felt relieved when they did go wrong.
Kekon is an island that has thrown off the yoke of its imperial masters but still faces threats from all sides–and from within. What was a freedom movement led by Kekonese heroes with the ability to use the energy in jade as magic has devolved into mafia-esque gangs who control parts of the sprawling city of Janloon. The No Peak clan is led by the Kaul family, whose aging patriarch was the hero who freed Kekon: they are forced to defend what is theirs when their rival clan seeks more power in Janloon.
The setting is reminiscent of 20th-century Hong Kong–I’m not quite certain what decade, but there are fancy cars, no computers, and phones are still plugged into walls. As for plot, it feels like a gangster film. Neither the plot nor the setting are what I normally gravitate towards: I tend to shy away from urban fantasy and fantasy set in more modern worlds. But the worldbuilding is excellent–for a world rife with magic, it feels surprisingly grounded. I was immediately sucked into this world and its conflicts, and that stems from the fascinating characters and the tension inherent from their relationships with one another.
The main characters are the youngest generation of the Kauls: Lan, the Pillar (leader of the clan); Hilo, the Horn (the head of the fighting forces); Shae, who left her family and her jade behind to travel to the America-analogue for love and school; and Anden, a schoolboy who is more of a cousin adopted into the clan. The story begins around the time of Shae’s return to Janloon; she is reluctant to get involved in family business and refuses to take up her jade again. Lan is struggling with being the leader in the shadow of his aged grandfather and dead father, torn between the old guard and his new plans. Anden is worried about his final year of school, and the spectre of his half-Kekonese ancestry and difficult mother hangs over his head. And Hilo… Hilo is oddly simple. He is good at what he does and does not crave more power or influence; he loves and hates with equal fierceness.
The sibling relationships are the meat of the story, even as outside forces pummel them and drive them increasingly at odds. Hilo and Shae have a sibling rivalry that seems almost one-sided: Shae is intensely focused on proving herself Hilo’s equal, while he just wants her to fall in line with how things ought to be, the simple picture of the three of them leading the clan together as Pillar, Horn, and Weather-Man (sort of an intelligence/business role). Lan is the oldest brother who acts almost as a replacement father to them, especially Anden. Anden himself knows he is an outsider and feels uncertain of his place.
I tried to avoid spoilers, but I did pick up that people have complicated feelings about Hilo, and I totally understand why. He is somehow admirable and infuriating; generous yet utterly inflexible. Cool-headed, thoughtful Lan is the character I gravitated towards the most (probably because I am the oldest of five siblings!), though I felt an immediate sympathy to Anden as well. Yet I found Shae’s character arc probably the most interesting in how her desire for autonomy kept coming into conflict with her sense of duty to her family. Love is something tricky for the Kaul family, exemplified in their grandfather’s increasingly cruel presence, and yet I felt they did all love each other but were all terrible at showing it. And that, perhaps, is the heart of what a family can be–love and duty mixed up with past conflict that leave scars and never quite heal over.
I can’t wait to continue with the series–I’m raiding bookstores after work.