It's probably a 4.5 but I'm definitely rounding up.
I have known about this book for a while now but I never really thought of reading it; it didn't feel like my kind of story and it also happens to be adult fantasy, which is not my usual genre. But 2019 has been an year of me trying to read a bit differently, especially picking up and promoting more books by Asian authors. So, it was inevitable that this book would be on my radar again. What I didn't expect was the insane amount of buzz around it this summer due to release of it's sequel, when my Stars and Sorcery Book Club chose it as our BOTM for July, I decided to finally read it. And what an experience this has been.
The author does a phenomenal job of creating this world. I have obviously never been to Hong Kong or Japan, only know a bit about them from the movies or shows I watch, but I could still feel that the author took a bit of inspiration from these countries to create the island nation of Kekon where this story takes place. Except a little initially, there is not a lot of info dumping, but we get to know a lot about the history of the occupation of Kekon, how the Jade warriors and ordinary people rose up in revolution to take back their country and how the country has prospered in the decades after that. I thought the whole concept of Jade being a bioenergetic natural product, which gives its wearer supernatural abilities was fascinating, but also liked that the author included to mention how not everyone could wear it and the consequences of wrongful usage. We also get a very intimate look into the two clans who rule the city of Janloon through fear, loyalty, intimidation and ultimately the power of Jade - both as a tool for trade and a weapon of war. As with any gangster saga, we get to know the hierarchy in the clans, and while it took me sometime to understand it all, it was pretty easy to follow later on in the book. Though the story is limited to the island of Kekon, we do get information about other countries, especially the enemies and trading partners and it looks like the sequel will give us a much more detailed look into the inner workings of these new places as well.
I will not call this a slow paced book per se, because something is always happening, the build up of brewing tensions is steady and when it all comes to a peak, it's bloody and explosive and mind blowing. I thought the author captured the inner workings of a clan perfectly, with the sometimes difficult but necessary decisions that have to be made, the treachery and betrayals that dog at every corner, and never knowing what might happen in the next moment. It was this tension filled atmosphere of the book that made me quite anxious and unable to binge read it in a single sitting. There are also some amazing action sequences, which are described with such precision that I could totally picture them and they reminded me so much of my favorite Kung Fu movies of my childhood. Despite all this, the story is not always grimdark. The author also manages to give us little moments of love and hope and humor, bringing some much needed light to otherwise dark times. The author never shies away from taking the story into unexpected directions which completely shocked me, and I really had to take breaks in between reading to comprehend it all. This is masterful storytelling at its best and I can't believe it's the author's adult fantasy debut. It definitely feels like the work of a veteran who is an expert at intricate world building and empathetic characterizations.
Despite all the gushing I have done about the world and the writing, the strength of this book are it's awesome characters. We get a very personal look into the No Peak Clan through the eyes of different members of the Kaul family and I'm in love with every single of them. Lan is the Pillar of the clan, the one everyone looks up to and who needs to show that he is capable of both keeping the peace and waging when required. But he is a man with flaws, kind and compassionate and pragmatic who wants peace, and doesn't really have the wherewithal for a prolonged clan war. Being the Pillar is a burden for which he has been prepared all his life, but it still weighs on him, making him take decisions that have unintended consequences. He really is a study in contrasts and I couldn't help but sympathize with his situation.
His brother Hilo on the other hand is hot tempered, aggressive and as the Horn of the clan, would really love to solve all issues with blood and violence. However, behind all this bluster is a man who loves his family and clan with all his heart and would do absolutely anything to protect them all. His words might seem venomous but they only hide a deep hurt and he doesn't know any other way to express them all. But his explosive nature definitely made me worry for him at every moment and I'm still scared what will happen in the next book.
Shae is the youngest Kaul who walked away from the family because she wanted a life that wasn't defined by her family's legacy and expectations, but she is ensnared into the clan business eventually when terrible events make it absolutely necessary. She may belong to the Kaul family and be an accomplished Jade warrior, but as a woman she has to constantly prove her worth and I thought the way she goes about achieving this is depicted very well.
There are many other interesting characters whom I could go on talking about because everyone of them is significant to the plot and is written with extreme care. I particularly liked Anden, who is like an adopted brother to the Kauls. His struggle with trying to reconcile his birth family's painful past with what he wants to do in the future is written very well - I could completely empathize with his pain and dilemma and just wanted to protect him from everything in the world. Wen is another very fascinating woman, who is so much more than just Hilo's love interest even though she doesn't show her strengths. She is a stone-eye which makes people consider her bad luck and she is pretty much invisible wherever she goes, which puts her in a unique position to work for the clan in ways others can't. Hilo may want to protect her from from the world, but she doesn't shy away from putting her talent and strategic mind to best use.
I probably have a lot more to say but I can't find proper words to gush about this masterpiece fantasy novel. So all I want to say is, if you have ever loved gangster movies or Kung Fu action entertainers and would love to read a fantasy book with similar themes, then don't look any further. Jade City is full of crisp action sequences, excellent world building and characters who maybe morally gray but you can't help but root for them. Finally, I have already pledged my loyalty to the Kauls and the No Peak clan and can't wait for the release of Jade War.... What are you waiting for ???