Fonda Lee’s Jade City was a startling combination of 1970s kung fu movies and organised crime tales in an urban fantasy setting. It was a brave genre mash up that worked tremendously mainly due to Lee’s control of her narrative and the creation of flawed, sometimes heroic characters situated within a propulsive plot in a well realised world. When that book ended there was no doubt that there was more to come but the question was, could Lee produce a sequel that was worthy of its predecessor? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Jade War not only forwards the many plot strands left hanging at the end of Jade City but has plenty of great action and shocking character development moments while significantly broadening Lee’s world.
Jade War, as with Jade City before it, focusses on the trials and tribulations of the Kaul family who run the No Peak clan on the island of Kekon. The clans get their power through control of biogenic jade, a substance found only on Kekon and that gives its wearer powers but has plenty of nasty side effects. Kekonese can acclimatise themselves while others need a specific drug to be able to manage it and control its effects. When the book opens, the No Peak’s war with the Mountain clan has ground to a bit of a stalemate despite the fact that the Kaul’s are still reeling after the death of their leader. International tensions are threatening to spill over into Kekon and both foreign wars and the need to deal with illegal jade smuggling forces the two clans to work together even while secretly continuing to scheme to bring each other down.
There is a long list of characters and plenty to try and remember from Jade City but Lee somehow manages to slip familiar readers back into the story with minimal exposition. Once again, the majority of point of view chapters follow members of the Kaul family – Hilo, leader of the No Peak Clan, sister Shae, his right hand who has taken over the critical role of Weather Man of the Clan, Kaul’s wife Wen, and the clan’s adoptee Anden now in exile in distant Espenia due to events in the previous book. Other shorter point of view sections round out the propulsive plot.
Lee excels in Jade War in piling up multiple layers of politics and scheming. For each character there is a personal, family, clan, national and international dimension to everything they do. Violence is around every corner and minor actions and stray words all have consequences. But Lee manages to stay true to each of these characters, showing their growth under sometimes extreme pressure and letting surprises grow organically from character. And she does this within a complex, well realised world of distinct actors with competing objectives.
Jade War is the perfect second book for this trilogy. It keeps its characters front and centre while significantly expanding the world in which they operate. There is plenty of well described, cinematic action and twists to keep the pages turning. But at the same time Lee does not shy away from dealing with deeper questions of honour, family, commitment, sexuality, belonging and racism. It’s a surprise that no one has optioned these books for a premium TV yet. But in the meantime, readers will just have to wait for book three. It cannot come soon enough.