Novel: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

One piece of insight I’ve picked up over the past several decades is that it’s not always necessary to read more than one novel in a series. The initial book often possesses a certain fire of inspiration, and a sense of gripping discovery that can be difficult to replicate in subsequent volumes. Ever since making that observation, I’ve been all the more impressed by the series that do hold up over time, with sequels that not only demand to be read, but fully reward the experience. It’s with a sense of awe, then, that I arrive at Fonda Lee’s Jade Legacy (2021), the third and final book of the scintillating Green Bone Saga, which concludes an epic serial undertaking without ever feeling like it’s padding its pages or wearing out its welcome. What a magnificent achievement!

For the uninitiated, the Green Bone Saga has a captivating set-up. It’s a secondary world not unlike our own, circa late twentieth century, with all the complex geopolitics and technology and scientific advancement you might expect of such an era. But it’s not our past world; it’s a similar but entirely different planet. Oh, and there’s magic. On the island nation of Kekon, jade is mined, and the substance has a profound supernatural effect on the people who wield it, provided they have the right genetic disposition. Jade’s superhuman abilities have inspired magical disciplines for Kekon’s legendary Green Bone warriors: Strength, Steel, Deflection, Lightness, Perception, and Channeling, skills that are primarily deployed in their martial arts. Jade is only found on Kekon, and therefore has had a tremendous impact on its culture, which is dominated by organized-crime-like clans full of Kekonese citizens particularly attuned for jade possession. The power and influence of the clans extends into business, industry, the government, even the military.

There are two dominant clans: our heroes, the smaller No Peak clan, and their more powerful rivals, the Mountain. The focus of Jade City (book one) is Kekon and the clan rivalry itself, wherein the Kaul family of No Peak—especially its powerful, volatile leader Hilo and resourceful intelligence/business expert Shae—fends off the aggressive angling and scheming of the Mountain, trying to establish and maintain territorial and economic advantages against them. Book two, Jade War, escalates the clan conflict in Kekon but also extends gripping narrative tendrils out into the wider world: other countries, also in conflict, wherein the clan business expands. Of particular note in this thread is Anden, a black sheep in the Kaul family who starts a new life in the nation of Espenia, becoming an important part of No Peak’s overseas expansion strategy.

At nearly 1,100 pages combined, the first two books cover an enormous canvas, and are an absolute master class in world-building (both magical and geopolitical) and pure, addictive storytelling. They serve up a unique blend of superhero fantasy, martial-arts action, and Scorsesesque mob epic, bursting at the seams with action, intrigue, romance, drama, and utterly gripping conflict. And that’s just the surface narrative, which ricochets through a huge roster of compelling, accessible characters. But Lee isn’t satisfied to simply lay groundwork; she consistently builds on it, adding layer after layer. It’s not just Kekon, but the rest of the world. It’s not just the clans, but all the many factors that impact their activities: geopolitics, cultural norms, religion, business, government, science, technology, and on and on. Despite this depth and breadth of invention, the series never loses sight of the people or the plot.

Even before cracking open Jade Legacy, the saga is a breathtaking accomplishment. So much so that my writer-brain could barely contemplate what a challenge it might be to bring it satisfyingly to a close. Somehow, though, Lee ups the ante, in a closing volume that spans another 736 pages. There’s almost no way to adequately summarize it, except perhaps to say it’s more of the same, and then some, and then some more. By which I don’t mean to imply it repeats itself, but that the series continues the remarkable feat of not just expanding an already complex world, but evolving it, as the passage of time inexorably changes the narrative terrain that’s been so elaborately crafted. Spanning the course of twenty-odd years, Jade Legacy uses both familiar protagonists (Hilo, Shae, Anden, the clanless troublemaker Bero, Hilo’s wife Wen), and new ones (most notably next-generation Kauls such as Niko, Jaya, and Ru) to catapult a remarkable world into an even more remarkable future. The historic clan rivalry between No Peak and the Mountain undergoes unexpected transformations. Aging and experience modify the leadership tactics of Hilo and Shae. Public opinion shifts, leading to the Clanless Future Movement in Kekon, forcing the Green Bones to newly consider their responsibilities and their potential complicity in systemic injustice. Larger, more powerful nations meddle in Kekon’s affairs, aiming to reshape its politics to their advantage. Jade magic finds new applications. Gradual medical advances change the science of jade tolerance. And public opinions, attitudes, and policies shift, both in Kekon and elsewhere, leaving the reader in a far different world than the one in which they started. This, perhaps, may be the jewel in the series’ crown, thematically. It’s an amazing enough thing to have created a world with such rich, inventive history and tradition, establishing a magical, tantalizingly different realm that inspires long-term emotional investment. It’s an entirely different amazing thing to interrogate the assumptions of that world, and use the resulting insights to inform its evolution. The first book in the series dropped me into a place I instantly adored; the last book got me to think about why I’d loved it, despite its many problems, and how there might be an even better version of it.

To say the least, a lot happens in this book. But it’s absolutely the right kind of a lot, because readers put off by the daunting scope of the Green Bone Saga—its massive dramatis personae, its occasional detours into detailed exposition—probably won’t make it this far anyway. For the rest of us, Jade Legacy is the brilliant capstone to an engrossing, unforgettable entertainment.

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