Review: Jade City

There’s been a sort of theme emerging in some of my recent posts, quite unintentionally, of the role and use of violence in fiction: to what extent it’s artistically justified and how its presence affects my own reading experience. So, in N.K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, I found her treatment of sometimes apparently disproportionate violence as a prerequisite for structural change and the elimination of oppression effective and artistically significant, even if I’m not completely sold on her argument. Whereas my personal squick factor and aesthetic preferences rendered Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, with its pervading atmosphere of graphic violence and body horror, rather less imaginatively potent.

And so to Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which focuses on a society in which violence is an expression – perhaps the only acceptable expression – of honour, power and worth. Set in the Asian island nation of Kekon, the novel follows the conflict between the two warring clans who control the capital city of Janloon. Its central characters are the three Kaul siblings who have recently inherited control over the No Peak clan following the retirement of their grandfather Kaul Sen. They find themselves in a political situation that’s rapidly becoming ever more unstable thanks to issues with the control and supply of jade, a substance which imbues clan warriors with preternatural fighting powers. With the Mountain clan threatening to expand into No Peak territory, the three new leaders of No Peak must quickly win the respect of the rest of the clan and work out a plan to resist the Mountain’s advances.

I can see what Lee is trying to do here (thanks in part to Catherine Rockwood’s excellent review at Strange Horizons): she’s conducting an examination of how rigid honour cultures based on shows of violence and strength affect the relationships and choices of those operating within them. So we have Shae, one of the Kaul siblings, who’s recently returned to Kekon from a high-flying corporate job abroad, outside the clan; she’s initially determined not to get involved in the clans’ power struggle, but No Peak’s need – her family‘s need – pulls her in; the Kauls’ status in Janloon leaves her no choice but to participate. Her brother Lan, the leader of the clan, meanwhile, has recently found his wife cheating on him and faces a stark choice between murdering her lover and losing face in front of his people. And what about Anden: a young ward of the Kaul family and a jade warrior in training who’s haunted by his mother’s drawn-out death from jade overexposure, unable to share his fears honestly because what Kaul doesn’t want to fight for the clan?

One thing that the text does establish effectively is how the elision of the boundary between family and work places irresistible pressure on clan members to conform. One of the main reasons Anden can’t discuss his fears with his adoptive family is precisely because he is adopted: there’s an unspoken assumption that the Kauls have given him access to prestige and opportunities, and it would be profoundly ungrateful to disgrace the family by refusing to become a jade warrior. This is screwed-up family dynamics writ large, magnified by political considerations and the need to preserve a united front against an old enemy.

And yet I didn’t find a whole lot of imaginative purchase in the novel. This I think comes back to my personal aesthetic response to the textual depiction of violence: specifically, the lack of alternatives the characters have to using it. That’s the point, of course; but it doesn’t seem to me a very original point, and the cumulative effect of the novel’s constant supernaturally-augmented fight scenes is to desensitise us to the psychological and physical damage those fights cause – rather than highlighting the horror of a violent existence as I think The Light Brigade‘s depiction of violence does – and I don’t think Lee is doing anything very much with that desensitisation. Therein lies the rub for me: while there’s not anything technically wrong with Jade City, it’s not doing anything interesting or unusual enough to overcome my instinctive resistance to narratives suffused with violence. But your mileage may well vary.

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