Title: Jade City
Author: Fonda Lee
Are there LGBT characters? Yes, a principal point of view character
Brief summary / book review: Picture a noir gang story set in the 1940’s, in a city that’s Hong Kong-ish, and you get the general atmosphere of the book (note: I am way underselling it, but this is just meant to give you the gist). On Janloon, the Jade City in question, jade isn’t just a piece of jewelry, but a source of magic — magic that comes, of course, at a price. That price isn’t just the cost of doing business and running jade and doing what it takes to consolidate power in the city; it also exacts a price if you use it wrongly.
Even for those who are used to it, when they take off their jade, and put it back on later, they’ll have a brief moment of nausea, where it takes them a few minutes to get their bearings.
Reading this book was a bit like that. When I first started reading it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It took me a little while (about 50 pages or so) to land on the author’s wavelength, but once I did? Wow. Yeah, I loved it.
In Janloon, there are two main gangs that control the source of jade, and the book follows the family that runs one of those gangs, the Kauls. There’s the older brother who is the head of the gang, newly appointed to the role. His hot-headed younger brother runs the muscle. A sister who studied abroad for a while and renounced her jade comes back to live in the city, but tries to stay away from her family and resist the lure of using jade. And then there’s an adopted cousin who is studying at an academy to learn how to use jade.
It’s the last, the cousin, who is the gay character. If there is a hierarchy among the 4 characters above, he is definitely fourth, but still plays a major and critical role in the story, with multiple chapters from his point of view. And his sexuality is a relatively minor aspect of his character. It certainly informs who he is, and how he interacts with others (especially with family), but it’s not the main thing that defines him. I definitely appreciate that there is a gay character where his being gay isn’t the only personality trait he has (although would it have killed Fonda Lee to give poor young Andy a boyfriend? Or even someone to kiss? Maybe that’s something to look forward to in the next book!).
Instead, he is more worried about succeeding in the Academy, the safety of his adopted family, and their tenuous grip of power in Janloon, because he knows if they’re not in power, they’ll be dead.
And here is where the book really shines. After powering through the first 50 pages, the story takes off like a rocket. Once the table-setting is done with, once the universe is established and the players identified, then the game of thrones begins. It mixes the best of gang warfare with Wuxia films, and a healthy splash of court politics. There are vivid images throughout, and the writing is taut and frenetic. There are genuine surprises and great twists, steamy sexy scenes (alas, none with our gay character — yet), thrilling action sequences, and so on.
It’s pure fantasy, in the best possible way, and I can’t wait to read the next installment, Jade War. One of my favorite reads of 2020, easily.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.