Jade City by Fonda Lee: Discussion questions + answers I have so far [SPOILERS]

This is part of a series called Classroom Without Walls, where I come up with discussion questions for books I read and try to offer answers as well.

Jade City is Subtle Asian Book Club‘s read for March, and it’s also the first book I’ve read this month. I have a pretty long TBR, but I can’t proceed with the rest of it without trying to sort the feelings and thoughts I have about the awesome worldbuilding and complicated family dynamics.

Here’s what it is about:

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio

Synopsis:
JADE CITY is a gripping Godfather-esque saga of intergenerational blood feuds, vicious politics, magic, and kungfu.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Goodreads | StoryGraph | Amazon

Below are some questions that have me on the edge of my seat until the final page. I do try to provide my own answers for some of them, but the others still leave me in a fog. Some also feel like brain farts and I don’t know if they would make much sense to you as they do for me 😅 If you have answers, please do leave a comment!

Note: There are massive spoilers ahead, so if you would like to use this post for discussion, please make sure that you’ve finished the book!

Overview:

  • Kekon society
    • When Shae studies in Espenia, she experiences discrimination for being Kekonese. Why do people see her this way? Why does the world look down on Kekon?
    • Jade and gold: how do the two governing systems work in Kekon?
    • Modernization and keeping culture alive: how do the Green Bones stay relevant in the age of [relative] peace and commerce?
  • History and its writers
    • What are the interludes for? What weight do they add to the story?
    • How do these legends shape the characters’ perception of the world?
    • Kaul Sen keeps reliving the glory days. What kind of history writer is he?
    • What is Lan’s legacy? Who is responsible for maintaining this image?
  • Worldbuilding and lore
    • Madness, illness, and power: what are the Itches, and how do they influence the concept of power and strength?
    • How does jade work? How is a nation built on this resource?
    • Which aspects of this world are new to me? Which ones are very familiar?
  • Characters
    • Emery Anden/Anden Emery: why does the foreign name structure bother him?
    • Lan: Why is he threatened by Hilo’s status? Why is he unsettled by the fact that Hilo’s name, not his, was the one whispered by the Mountain?
    • Why does Bero exist?
  • Plot and narrative structure
    • How do the interludes foreshadow the events of the next act?
    • Lan’s death comes as a shock to everyone. Did you see it coming? Were there clues? How does it affect the pacing of the latter half of the book?
    • What genre is this book? Which conventions are present in the book? Which ones are subverted?

Keep scrolling to know my thoughts about these questions!

Kekon society

When Shae studies in Espenia, she experiences discrimination for being Kekonese. Why do people see her this way? Why does the world look down on Kekon?

She comes from a country that is seen as backward and mysterious by many. It is different, and anything perceived to be different and even more powerful is considered a threat.

In Espenia, specifically, Shae’s martial arts training is a puzzle to prospective employers because it is considered out of place in their society. It doesn’t fit in with their idea of what is “civilized”: more “scientific”, less religious, and further removed from cultural rituals and family obligations. It hurts because this is a very real thing that many of us face.

Jade and gold: how do the two governing systems work in Kekon?

The council (gold) governs the city in the administrative aspect, while the Green Bone clans (jade) rule through culture–specifically through networks of relationships, loyalty, and history.

More interestingly, why can’t the city council hold jade? I love how there is an attempt to split the power, but these two systems are still too intertwined. People who are not connected with either sphere are the weakest, and I think that’s where Bero comes in.

Modernization and keeping culture alive: how do the Green Bones stay relevant in the age of [relative] peace and commerce?

The height of the Green Bones’ history was the Many Nations War, where jade-wielding warriors and legendary heroes like Kaul Sen stood their ground against Shotarian invaders. A lot of the common sayings and practices are a result of this era: whispering a name, coming down from the mountain, etc.

In other fantasy universes, the Green Bones would have likely been persecuted for inciting violence in the now-peaceful Janloon. At this time of writing, the only reference I can think of is Porco Rosso, where the seaplane fighters who once served the nation are now hunted by the fascist government. Jade City does otherwise: Green Bones have carved an important place in society. Clan leaders manage reservoirs of jade, which are key natural resources; run schools that produce doctors, teachers, warriors, and leaders in business and religion; and keep the peace through tribute and loyalty. Although I personally can’t wrap my head around gangsters ruling the streets, I can’t deny how much they have helped build Janloon into a teeming metropolis.

History and its writers

What are the interludes for? What weight do they add to the story?

The interludes focus on the legends held sacred by the Deitist religion. Unlike the prevailing Western philosophy of only considering documented events as history, the book shows how oral history in the form of legends and religious stories is considered equally important in Kekonese society. Much of the Green Bone heritage is traced back to these heroes and their feats.

How do these legends shape the characters’ perception of the world?

I think they directly influence characters’ motivations, such as the saying “Pray to Jenshu, but be like Baijen”.

I know there’s more to it than that, but I feel at a loss for words.

Kaul Sen keeps reliving the glory days. What kind of history writer is he?

His version of events is what the next generation of Green Bones grew up hearing. He is basically an oral historian like many of our grandparents and parents. Many of his biases and deep-seated hurts shape his narrative, and the younger Kauls (including Anden) have to reckon with the legacy that he leaves behind.

One intriguing aspect for me is the shadow of Kaul Du’s legacy. Kaul Sen is primarily responsible for remembering him as the charismatic rebel leader who died too soon, and his unprocessed grief is now wielded against Lan. Lan, whom he views as a stain on Du’s legacy instead of a grandchild mourning the loss of his father.

What is Lan’s legacy? Who is responsible for maintaining this image?

Lan is known for being a great peacetime Pillar. He is a cool-headed man who is skilled in diplomacy and business savvy, and he loves his family very much. In the first part of the book, we get a sense that Lan isn’t great at his position. But as Hilo takes the reins of No Peak, we can see how much Lan is actually good at his job. Hilo honors this and makes sure that the Green Bones remember him this way, even to the point of erasing the dubious circumstances of Lan’s death.

Worldbuilding and lore

Madness, illness, and power: what are the Itches, and how do they influence the concept of power and strength?

It feels like I’m missing a commentary or link among these concepts. Help?

How does jade work? How is a nation built on this resource?

Jade is a bioenergetic material that gives its wielders different powers, but it can only be handled safely after years of training. I love how it became a vehicle to explain martial arts powers, and I think that having the sole monopoly of this resource–both the material and the ability to use it–makes Kekon a threat to other countries. Its military prowess is unmatched and its economy is a mystery box that other countries like Espenia want to crack open: be the first, and winner takes all.

Which aspects of this world are new to me? Which ones are very familiar?

For me, it’s the shift from wartime clans to modern day gangs. I am especially interested in the Lantern Men, because it’s so fascinating to see how these networks started and evolved over time. I didn’t expect to read about how a nation rebuilds itself after a war, and I love how Fonda Lee works in that discussion with much depth and nuance.

If I were born in Janloon, I would want to be a Lantern Man and run an established shop like the Twice Lucky. I don’t know if I would pledge to the Mountain or to the No Peak because both are honestly really awesome.

Characters

Emery Anden/Anden Emery: why does the foreign name structure bother him?

It reminds him that he is only half-Kekonese, and in a society that disdains outsiders, being half-Espenian is a curse.

Lan: Why is he threatened by Hilo’s status? Why is he unsettled by the fact that Hilo’s name, not his, was the one whispered by the Mountain?

Despite of his goodness and capability as the current Pillar, Lan’s confidence in his own standing in the No Peak is already nonexistent. Kaul Sen has managed to chip away at his self-esteem for so many years, and Doru always second-guesses his decisions. He is well aware of the whispers against him, and the fact that Hilo is named as target made it clear to him that he is not considered someone worthy of being a threat to anyone.

Why does Bero exist?

He is really annoying and I want to punch him, but from the get-go, I’ve found him fascinating. He exists outside established power structures, and what piques my curiosity is that he’s not the Chosen One. He’s portrayed as… someone not good. I don’t want to call him bad, because I understand where he’s coming from. Much of Kekonese society depends on which family you’re born into, and if Hilo were not born into the Kauls, he might have honed his anger and turned out like Bero. Bero rises from the darkness that jade and gold have not managed to touch, and he is the harbinger of all the chaos that will fall on Janloon.

It doesn’t change the fact that many of his decisions are awful and that he is an asshole. I am scared of Book 2.

Plot and narrative structure

How do the interludes foreshadow the events of the next act?

The interludes usually feature a central figure whose struggle mirrors that of the main characters’.

Lan’s death comes as a shock to everyone. Did you see it coming? Were there clues? How does it affect the pacing of the latter half of the book?

Oh my JADE. HE’S MY FAVORITE CHARACTER! Of course I didn’t see it coming! I was supposed to end my reading sprint in this chapter, but after his death, I just HAD to finish the book.

Was it totally unexpected? In hindsight, not really. He was sick, his legacy is being questioned, and he had the fight of his life. If this were an anime, his victory at the duel would have been my signal to start letting go of him because he would have already reached the highest point of his character development. He had to die at some point. His death feels like [spoiler for Fullmetal Alchemist] Lt. Maes Hughes’: one that sparks the race to the climax and makes the war much more personal for the main characters.

I know that’s how storytelling is supposed to be, but it won’t stop me from mourning.

What genre is this book? Which conventions are present in the book? Which ones are subverted?

It is billed as an Asian-centered fantasy, but to me, it reads more like a noir. I don’t know much about noir conventions to discuss it since it’s a genre I’m not really into. For some reason, I expected a high/epic fantasy, so the maps and the first chapter surprised me. It’s nothing like I’ve ever read before. In any case, I LOVE IT.

Overall thoughts

Listing my questions made me realize that I love the worldbuilding so much. I can imagine it existing in this world, and honestly, I don’t know what to think about Kekon until I actually visit it.

I have so much to say about the characters, too, but right now they’re just wordless pleas along the lines of “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS???” that don’t really need to be answered because I understand what they’re going through. *sobs* I just want you all to be happy, my babies. Since I want this post to explore more of what the book has to offer, I decided to focus on other aspects of the book that I don’t really hear about.

I can’t wait to see this on screen! I think that I will be able to appreciate action scenes much more, since my couch potato ass can’t figure out which limbs go where. I feel really bad because they’re beautifully written, and I think that I’m doing Fonda Lee’s black belt injustice.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! I’m looking forward to reading Jade War soon and to getting my hands on Jade Legacy!

***

Let’s discuss:

  • What are your answers to any of the questions above?
  • What questions do you have that are not listed here?

5 thoughts on “Jade City by Fonda Lee: Discussion questions + answers I have so far [SPOILERS]”

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