The Nebula award will be announced May 19, 2018, at this year’s Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award. This post is the first in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Nebula award for best novel. The other nominees are Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (which I reviewed for the Philip K. Dick award), and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.
“He might only be a dockworker’s bastard who would never have a martial education at Wie Lon Temple School or Kaul Dushuron Academy, but at least he was Kekonese all the way through. He had guts and nerve; he had what it took to be somebody. Jade made you somebody.”
Fonda Lee is the much-loved author of a number of fantastic novels, and it’s no wonder that her SFF epic Jade City caught the eye of the Nebula award committee. Jade City is eye-catching indeed, with an exciting premise, a fresh new take on magic, gangsters, politics, family, betrayal, and … mining? The back cover promises more than enough to have this book flying off the shelves – and boy does it deliver!
Literally by page three I was already blown away by Lee’s world building. You can read more about her take on world building in SFF in this interview over on the Barnes & Noble SFF blog, and you should – because she is a master. There were a couple of places where I found I was asking questions about “how things worked,” only to find that she answered them 10-20 pages later. The world she’s created for Jade City is wonderful, inspiring, and I’m truly glad it looks like we’re all going to get at least two more books in which to explore it.
No review of this book could get far without talking about the magic in this book, so that’s where I’ll start. Lee introduces readers to a modern world in which some people (natives of the fictitious island of Kekon) can access magical superhuman powers by wearing, or being very near, the gemstone jade. Of course, there’s a whole culture around how, and by whom, jade is worn, and Lee uses this to great effect both overtly (in describing how characters feel about their jade and that of others) and subtly (as she teaches us as readers the meaning of jade early on, she empowers us to draw our own interpretations and conclusions later on in the narrative). The loving way she mentions jade – how it catches the light, how it swings on a chain, how it sits in the handle of a blade or the setting of a bracelet, how it glows against skin – feels casual, beautiful, and insidious. In a word: magical.
One of the more masterful things Lee has done in Jade City is marry old-world (fictitious) cultural tradition with modern globalism, politics, and business, in a way that feels absolutely real, relatable, and truly fascinating. This marriage isn’t seamless, and Lee uses that friction to add depth to the world, to motivate her characters, and to help readers invest in the narrative on multiple levels at once. Yet somehow, though she uses Taiwanese, Japanese, and other east Asian imagery and cultural tropes (traditional and modern) as touchstones in her fictional nation of Kekon, they don’t feel like tropes.When I picture the traditional architecture’s sloping roofs I feel like I’m borrowing from my exposure to Japanese architecture to inform my understanding of Kekonese tradition. Similarly, when Lee describes her leather-clad street gangs’ wild hairstyles, the fact that I’m picturing a Bosozoku pompadour feels coincidental – rather than as though she’s borrowing too heavily from current cultures.
Jade City‘s greatest strength, as far as I’m concerned, has nothing to do with all those wild and wonderful promises from its back cover (though have I stressed yet just how well Lee delivers on all those promises?). It’s all about the main characters. They’re all so epically, unbelievably, human. The main characters, Lan, Hilo, and Shae, are each in their own right some of the most fully realized and deeply individual characters I’ve ever encountered in speculative fiction. For the three of them to make up an ensemble cast is almost overwhelming. Their flaws don’t feel like plot devices, their mistakes aren’t convenient, and though they’re all incredibly strong jade-wearers none of them feel like any kind of god-mode Gary Stu. And the way she illustrates so many rarely-explored facets of masculinity … a whole article could be written on her characters’ masculinity alone. She does what so many authors fail to do – writes fully-rounded characters who each own their own kinds of masculinity. I can honestly say I’ve never encountered another cast of characters like this, and I’m moved by it.
This isn’t to say that I have no bones to pick with this book. On the contrary, while I clearly think Lee has done a fantastic job in creating Jade City, I’m not an overly large fan of her writing. In general, her narrative voice is simpler than I prefer – offering many short, choppy sentences rather than investing in more complex phrases. Where this stood out most to me was the way in which it hampered what could have been a much more poetic descriptive style. There were a few times where her poeticism came through for me, but for the most part it fell flat because of her narrative voice.
Another quibble is one I’ve already alluded to. While she did get around to answering all my questions about the world and its workings, I was distracted again and again, pulled out of the story because I was missing vital information about the background or setting. While this is normally not something I’d mention about a book, it ended up having a significant impact on my enjoyment of this book in particular. Especially in the first 100 pages or so, her use of undefined terms or references to unknown groups and affiliations became dense enough that whole paragraphs read like buzzword-salad. Stick with it, though, because the payoff is completely worth it.
In the end, I’m very impressed by Fonda Lee’s Jade City and am prepared to recommend it to just about everybody – and I’ll happily wait until 2019 for my next visit to Kekon.