Review: JADE CITY and JADE WAR by Fonda Le

Lee’s Jade City and Jade War begin a family saga in which magic and loyalty are more treasured than life itself. In the sprawling, metropolitan capital of an island nation, family-run clans teeter on the edge of deadly conflict as the world seeks covert control of their cultural and magical wellspring: jade that offers the right bearers impossible physical power. A synthetic drug offers the addictive, dangerous power to anyone and the itch for jade begins to spread.  fondalee-e1564156868181

With the echoes of Kekon’s civil war dying with its elders, the nation’s younger generations are coming into power, and the No Peak Clan’s scions are no more ready for that burden than any of history’s princelings. Kaul Lanshinwan may have been raised as his grandfather’s successor, but rising to fill the shoes his late, larger-than-life, war-hero father left empty has already cost him dearly. His brother, Hiloshudon, on the other hand, may be too ready to be his brother’s right-hand-man, the clan’s street-enforcer. Together, they seem strong enough to face anything—except maybe all-out war with their rival clan over black-market jade sales and territorial encroachment. For that, they’ll need family. Long removed from clan business is their sister, Shaelinsan, who will not wear jade. The Kauls’ younger, adopted cousin, Emery Anden, cannot wear jade until he graduates. And for the Kauls, everything is written in terms of jade. Those that wear it can be powerful and vulnerable as corporeal gods. Those who cannot—or who choose not to—walk a tenuous line beside them. But the price of that jade will always be blood.

Calling the Green Bone Saga books “The Godfather with magic and kung fu” (as Lee has previously) is as succinct a summary as can be made, but talking only about how much fun these books are misses the craft that underpins them. The fight scenes are tense, physical, but don’t go over the head of someone without a strong awareness of martial arts. The characters’ competence hamstrings them as often as it helps, and their motivations are clear, personal, palpable. The twists are as gut-wrenching as the violent decisions the characters make to gain or maintain power. And the momentum carries straight through both books, and I rarely find book twos to be as strong as their companions. The family ties and addictive, consuming magic remind me of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series, another sweeping epic albeit one with a far different setting. Combining the force of epic fantasy with familiar, urban set dressings and the gritty feel of a mob story just hit all the right notes for me. The sum of this: Lee sets the bar high for herself and others. Jade City and Jade War are page-turners that do not let up, and I expect nothing less of Jade Legacy when it arrives.

On a personal note: I do know Fonda, but happily purchased both books on my own with no incentive from Fonda or her publisher. I also listened to these books on Audible and very much enjoyed Andrew Kishino’s performance.

Review: SIGNAL TO NOISE by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

SignaltoNoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
(Fantasy, Urban; Solaris 2015)

4/5 Stars.

In 1988, three teenagers from Mexico City discover that they can cast spells using magic. In 2009, one of them returns home after twenty years and confronts the messes they made. So much heart in this book, and as Meche’s grandmother says, “Magic will break your heart.”

Writer-Brain: 4.5/5 stars. I loved Moreno-Garcia’s worldbuilding tactics. There’s something very modern-day about looking at magic with a scientific eye as Meche does. She’s a programmer and she expects that magic, if it obeys laws, can be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method. The discovery process alone was an effective way to highlight how mature these kids are–not to mention the adapting they’ve done to the curveballs life has thrown at them in their less-than-lovely neighborhood in Mexico City. But the process also answers readers’ questions, even if they didn’t realize they had them. There’s quite a bit of mystery to the magic, but Moreno-Garcia offers just enough satisfying answers that readers can feel as confident in what can and can’t happen as Meche and her friends do.

One thing that troubled my Writer-Brain throughout was Daniela’s character. She felt so flat for such a long time, and I’m not sure she ever really rounded out. She feels like a necessary third wheel who is there do be shaped by the action and to react to the other characters. But then I started wondering if that was because Meche is rather self-involved and mostly dismisses Daniela in their teen years. Is it a function of the narrator or a function of the writer? A feature or a bug, if you will? I think I’d actually need to read this again to be sure of my personal answer. I think I may write a post on this sometime…

Editor-Brain: 4/5 stars. In several places throughout the book, a phrase or sentence felt very stilted. This was odd, to me, given the grace of the rest of the prose. And while I understood that everyone was speaking Spanish, I had a tough time feeling that. At one point, a character refers to the phrase “I love you” as being three words long–but in Spanish, the direct translation is two words long. It just made me stop and rethink things too much. I’m not sure if all of this is just Moren0-Garcia’s style, the consequences of writing about Spanish in English, or the effects of an editorial decision. I admit that I haven’t read enough novels set in Spanish-speaking locales nor am I proficient enough in the language to speak expertly, but it pulled me out of the flow of the story and I felt the questions needed to be raised.

Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. The experience was engrossing. I found myself wanting to share bits with my husband often–a habit he tolerates because he loves me. As my summary hints, a great deal of this hurt my heart. Every character is so well-intentioned, but they’re so human and the consequences are disturbingly reasonable. If this could happen, I feel like it would happen. I definitely want to reread this after a while, peel back the layers again, and see what I find the next time. And that, alone, is a good recommendation from me.

Et cetera: I found it really interesting to compare the voice of this novel to that of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, which I also recently read. And I’m looking forward to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s next novel, Certain Dark Things (complete with contest for a free copy!).