Strong Roots: Family in Jade City by Fonda Lee

We’re all products of our family. Our parents shape us and we bear the burden of living under their thumbs. Rebel or conform at your peril. When your family is the mafia, rebellion comes at a cost.

The award winning novel Jade City by Fonda Lee offers an uncompromising look at how family shapes our actions well into adulthood. A new take on Yakuza-style organized crime, Lee plunges the reader into the gritty underworld of the island city of Janloon, which is ruled by opposing clans of Greenbones, descendants of a warrior tribe with superhero-like powers fueled by jade, a stone which can only be found on the island of Kekon. Only a select few Kekonese can use the stone safely, and those who can are educated in schools that emphasize martial arts and careful, dedicated training to harness the power. The world-building is seamless and Lee does an excellent job of creating a wholly believable economy, where well-heeled business people loyal to each clan are called “Lantern Men” and the Greenbone warriors were deciding factors in a decades-old war for the island’s independence.

The actions of the three children of the No Peak clan, a once strong clan that begins to weaken as their patriarch father falls into dementia, are mostly reactionary for the first half of the novel as a neighboring clan moves in takes over their territory. As children of a wealthy, famous family, they come off as a little entitled and unaware.

They’re believable, in other words.

They are forced to grow and change in response to the difficulty anyone must endure when a patriarch falls, when the innocence of youth strips away society’s customs and mores no longer hold true.  

Family and tradition isn’t just everything in the book, it’s the plot itself. A ruthless father has forced his successor, Lan, to risk everything to be as strong as he. In order to adhere to the moral code, he secretly takes a drug that will allow him to be more masculine in spite of the terrifying side effects. The daughter, driven away by cruelty to study abroad, returns home to find she must choose a life removed from the family entirely, or embrace their way of life. There is no middle ground.

The heart of every mafia story is family, but Jade City forges ahead, breaking free from stereotypes in favor of a fantastical cultural heritage that forces the characters to change and grow in ways that wouldn’t be possible if not for the fantastic Urban Fantasy element.

Categories: Book Reviews

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