Open Thread: the start of Jade City

Here is an open thread to discuss your feelings and thoughts of Chapter One of Jade City. What struck you about the writing? Any questions about what is happening (this is a no reader-shaming zone)?

Or: I noticed that several people have commented, in a happy and positive way, that this isn't the kind of book they would normally read. Can I ask -- just curious -- why do you think that is?

Alternatively, you can also tell us about a fun thing to see or visit in your part of the world.

Three important guidelines -- please read BEFORE you post:

1. No spoilers or revealing of future events in the novel, please, even mild ones. Talking about chapter two is okay -- but not beyond that.

2. Let's avoid negative comments about the book for now. I'm not saying that this novel-reading club will all be about praise and unicorns going forwards. Nor do I think this novel is some kind of flawless miracle that is above critique. But right now, while we are still getting established and in progress, I don't think complaints about the novel set the right tone. The goal is to learn new skills from these novels, so let's proceed, for now, as if this is a novel worth studying (because it definitely is).

3. It’s great to talk about the specifics of this fictional world. However, I propose that we mostly go easy on / hold off on, for now, analysing the "Asian-ness" of the novel. I know that's a silly idea on some level. Clearly this is a book set in a society where the main characters eat with chopsticks and do not have European-esque names. I personally find that aspect of the story fascinating and I find myself reflecting on the history of occupation, oppression, and colonisation that I heard about Taiwan when I lived there. However, there are 280 people in this group at time of writing, and while I know you are cool, I feel like in a group this size we can rapidly get into uncomfortable waters if we start to draw confident connections between the world of the story and our own world, or suggest that "x thing in the story is supposed to be bad because everyone in Asian cultures also thinks it's bad." After all, we've only read a few chapters so far and this group is just getting started. Questions, of course, should be fine. Maybe you are curious about something: ask away! And, if you are Taiwanese, Asian-Canadian etc, and you want to share a personal story or reflection, maybe this guidance doesn’t apply to you.

The point is: I think that following a rule like this, for the majority of our observations for this week's open thread, will make for a happier starting point.

Does these guidelines make sense?

  • I’ll start the thread: I find the level of technology in this world so interesting. It’s not clear from the opening chapters how “modern” or “contemporary” the novel’s setting is supposed to be. I got a 1940s esque vibe from the opening two chapters. How about you?

    • That’s interesting – I barely thought about the level of technology. I guess I grew up pre-internet and pre-PC. Like Jade City, we had phones, cars and planes. So to me, I felt kind of at home with this aspect of the world. Felt like the 1970s and 1980s that I lived in.

    • I agree but maybe that’s because I felt it was the era of gangsters and mobs and 1920-40s was the era for that in N. America. When I think on that now, it seems like a rather silly deduction to make for a non-North American story.

    • I did get that 1940s noirish feel a bit at the beginning, but the jade and its apparent power and value shifts it. Right now the story feels like it sits more as spec fic kind of openness to what defines now because the potential of that mineral is still so undefined. My familiar definitions of what magic or technology is and consequently how they define particular eras, I don’t think, will be applying to this world.

  • The use of description portrayed the scene vividly but I can’t pinpoint the era other than to say it’s definitely not modern–a phonograph playing in the background, no mention of technology like phones, pagers, etc. There was a sort of formality in the speech between the characters that would be out of place in a modern setting.

    It was easy to picture the restaurant, its owner, employees, and customers; the heat and humidity bathing the occupants in sweat and increasing the tension, adding a layer to the expectation that something was about to happen. But it wasn’t until the end of the chapter that I got an inkling of the power of the coveted item (trying not to give away anything 🙂 ). Excellent set up to the story’s premise.

    • Hi Linda, I agree with you that Lee makes great use of the sultry weather to amplify the feeling of oppression. I’d noticed that too. It also increased my empathy for the two boys labouring in the kitchen – until Beco dumped his co-worker, when he lost my allegiance as a reader and my feelings about him got a lot more complicated.

    • I like your observation about the formality of the language. I wonder, since some languages do have varying formality depending on the context or who a person is talking to, if this formality will continue once we get to see more characters of equal standing interact.

  • OK – I’ll start with some fun things. I live on Vancouver Island in a small, former mining village surrounded by 179 biking/hiking trails (200 km/125 miles) that wind through the forest. We’re known as the trail biking capital of Canada. We also have a community-supported agricultural (CSA) garden right on the main street, aptly named McDonald’s . You’ll find it next to Rider’s Pizza (of course). Customers, like me, pay Mr. McDonald in the spring so he’ll deliver fresh-picked veggies to my door from May through September. Yum. But THE very best thing about my wee town is that if you go ‘downtown’ on Valentine’s Day, you’ll find hundreds of hand-crafted red hearts with positive sayings and love poems written on them posted on every business window and telephone pole in town. Anonymous “Valentine Fairies” craft them and secretly post them before sunrise. But be warned. You won’t find any on the 15th; the fairies will have gathered them all up in the middle of the night.

    • Hi Bette,
      You and I have something in common. I love to hike. A trip to Vancouver Island would be a dream come true. I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and love the many trails all over the state and the Upper Pennisula of Michigan.
      It’s nice to meet you. I sent the “Valentine Fairies” to our downtown group planners.

  • There were a lot of names, a lot of new stuff, but the line of the story (or at least the immediate story with the two boy-thieves) was very strong and kept me going. Mostly I thought “wow, the world building is nicely peppered in.” And then we start to get pieces of, what I believe anyway, is the larger plot with the jade carver disappearing. I don’t read a lot of fantasy anymore, and when I did, it was set in that sort of medieval-esque time, so this must more modern setting is a change for me.

  • Technology seems to be selective in order to evoke a “feeling” or “mood”. The era when “cars and televisions were a new thing” and a “color television that had recently been installed” suggests the mid-70s, when color TVs were starting to show up, you could buy a Toyota for $1,000, and a time when Bruce Lee and Kung Fu movies from Hong Kong were becoming popular.

    I liked how the author uses how “jade” works for Bero to pivot the POV to Hilo, who is used to tell us more about “jade” as the story progresses.

    • Yes — the 1960s / 1970s / 1980s makes a lot more sense. There are televisions and planes but not the digital world of computers, email, and mobile phones.

  • Pia Gasberg says:

    I love the opening sentence and paragraph. There is a lot of info to take in, so I had to read it twice, but it sets the scene so concise and beautiful in terms of restaurant, Asia, time of day, weather, and it gives a promise of what will happen – the “would-be jade thieves”. I love the imagery of “the city of Janloon was like a spent lover – sticky and fragrant”. I’m glad the first chapter is so short, because there really is a lot of info to take in, and I need to read chapter 1 again before I read the next two chapters.

    • Katie Brown says:

      The description of Janloom struck me, too. I reread it about five times. That’s happened a few more times in the first two chapters. Beautiful turns of phrase within the action/fantasy.

  • Cara Flett says:

    JADE CITY hooked me from the first paragraph. As part of my ongoing efforts to improve my writing, I took a deep dive into why.

    For starters, Fonda Lee establishes POV, location, and time—in three sentences. More importantly, for me, anyway, she raises questions in each of these three sentences that I need answered: Who are these “would-be jade thieves”? Where is “the city of Janloon”? What era has “ceiling fans” that spin to little effect?

    I didn’t wait long for answers.

    Having established the impending CRISIS (the jade theft), Lee calmly, inexorably—masterfully—puts the rising in action. She reveals her story world through dialogue, internal monologue, action, and exposition that’s descriptive, but never reeks of info-dump. The jade-powered action sequence at the chapter’s end took my breath away. Then, BAM! The chapter ends on a cliffhanger. I suffered the ebook equivalent of paper cuts on every finger as I clicked to the next chapter to find out what happens to Bero and Sampa…

    Color me impressed. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try out Lee’s chapter structure:


    I want to write like Fonda Lee in my next life. (I’m long grown up.)

  • allisongailb says:

    I’m one of those persons who wouldn’t normally pick up this kind of book to read. I love books with romance, so even if it’s a ‘romance novel’ in the strict sense of the term, I gravitate to books that have that as a sub-plot. I usually leave the fantasy to watching rather than reading because I love dialogue and not too fond of a lot of worldbuilding building and narration which I think would bore me.

    However, I’m totally loving Jade City so far, honestly. The use of jade and magic is really well done without being overpowering direct wand-waving, hand-waving sorcery. I like the interactions between the Kaul (this name is really starting to grow on me *smile*) family members and how totally different the writer makes their personalities, voices, and auras. Would love to see this novel turned into a movie/series. My favourite character so far is Hilo. I’m really curious and excited to see how this novel further develops. I’m happy to be exposed to this book and author. You rock, Daniel!

    (Hope I didn’t put any spoilers.)

  • edonovan7650 says:

    Excellent build up of tension in Chap 1. I like the way Lee demonstrated how jade changed Bero from a subservient waiter to an almost superman, able to leap tables and crash through doors. I’ve read that you shouldn’t place the inciting incident too early in the story, but Lee places it right in the first chapter, which works fine. Definitely very descriptive chapter to set the scene and place the reader in the restaurant.

    I did keep getting the characters of Sampa and Bero confused. Maybe there were too many characters introduced in this first chapter. I think I would have liked to limit it to three, four at the most, not seven. That’s a lot for a reader to track. I had to read the chapter twice to fully appreciate it. That’s not something I want to do when reading for pleasure.

  • Katie Brown says:

    This is really a masterful Chapter One. The character voice, the worldbuilding, the hints of conflict. I love reading fantasy, but sometimes struggle in the opening chapters to orient myself. Lee makes it to easy! Daniel mentioned this novel has multiple POVs: I am not a huge Bero fan by the end of chapter one — he turned on Sampa! — which makes opening up with his POV a very interesting choice.

  • tamaraannalba says:

    Reading a novel this way is a new experience for me; normally, I start reading and don’t stop until I’m finished a few hours later. Having to slow down and think–not just about what I’m reading, but how it’s written–is fascinating and I’m really enjoying it. I especially like the way that everyone is drawing my attention to individual aspects that I didn’t notice on my own.
    My question is: Is everyone reading the section before reading the email? Or reading the email first, so you know what to keep an eye out for in the novel?

  • Time and technology took up some headroom in my first reading. I often mark recent history by technology. But once I bought into the world of jade, I let go of trying to establish the year or decade. Like when I read steam punk, I assumed that, in the world of this novel, technology took a left turn at some point. Clothing becomes more relevant to the era. So, yeah, second half of the 20th Century for certain, but in this world of jade, everything could have happened yesterday.

  • FYI: I won’t drop the link in case of spoilers, but if you go to Fonda Lee’s website, click on Green Bone Saga, then page down and click on extras, there are some great world maps of Kekon and Janloon.

  • diana.dale says:

    In childhood on rainy or cold days books were my to go, escaping in someone else’s story, however due to a limited amount of choices, fantasy genre almost never ended up in my hands. Unconsciously I now avoid this type of books, the titles don’t appeal to me enough to take a peak.
    I am pleasantly surprised by Jade City however. The author manages to build an intricate world full of depth, in what I believe is a simplistic manner on the surface and as I move forward with the read new elements that she introduces really allow you to feel the authenticity of this jade powered nation. I’m already at chapter 14 and somehow still cannot feel a trajectory for the characters which in itself it’s fascinating. Usually I imagine different ways in which a specific story may play out, but important things are being revealed slowly, while the action is fast and when you think you know everything new angles are revealed which really messes up with my prediction radar, but makes for a very addictive read.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    I’m enjoying it. The writing is deft, and clear, and evocative. The characters are nicely drawn, and the magic system seems (so far) simple, consistent, and novel.
    I’m also enjoying the society, which feels like a blend of the exotic orient, triad style gangsters, where respect is earned, and the magic of course is power.
    Very nice pacing, too.

  • Felicitas says:

    I belong to the people who would say “this is something I don’t normally read”. All the more I am surprised how “hooked” I am after the first few chapters. 😀 The many – and not always easy – names of people, places, positions, is also something that caught my attention, because I have a beta reader who always tells me that I put too much of this into the first few Chapters … I am a reader who is not disturbed by these things, because I trust that I will get the necessary information over time. But some readers seem to be confused to the point of not wishing to read on. Now I wonder, if in my stories I am still not yet paying enough attention to the want, feeling and anticipation of the character in every scene? Is this why my beta reader gets confused?

  • What has struck me in the early chapters is how the author has taken something that is well known to me (Jade) and given it a new attribute that was not known to me, but has an established plausibility for me. I grew up in Okinawa (before it was returned to Japan) and my wife has been to Asia on an ambassador’s program. I have many pieces of jade that I have collected over my lifetime and have always associated them with grace, beauty, luck, etc.

    The author introduced (to me) that jade has always had these other exotic powers that I could not access (I am not the correct lineage) and that most cannot access these powers, and some other lineages are immune. However, many covet the jade and it is widely distributed throughout the world, even though it’s powers cannot be accessed unless you meet the requirements.

    So, I’m looking at my meager collection and thinking, yes, I get that! The thought of possessing jade is awesome, I’m part of a bigger collection of people (those who like jade) but I never really knew what I had!!

    In final, I’m just saying that this is more than a “suspension of disbelief” for me, it is a “What! Could that really be right!” moment that makes me feel an initial bond to the story and an anticipation of what other “truths” might be revealed to me in the subsequent chapters.

  • Seems there’s choreography at work, preparing us for a book of power plays. I was struck by how the locations (and their smells) in Chapter 1 were used as both a worldbuilding technique for social hierarchy and for magic.

    We begin in the kitchen of a gathering place. The restaurant itself attracts middling to important diners. But we are first introduced to the lowest rank: sweaty, would-be thieves surrounded by dirty dishes in the kitchen. A dockworker’s bastard and someone immune to jade magic.

    We move inside the dining hall, cooled by breeze. In one corner is a bar table and seated midrank regular; on the opposite side the horn and two fists occupy a booth. To cement our understanding of the trio’s social importance, they are served by the sallow would-be thief and approached by a solitous restaurant owner. Plus, it’s the midrank that’s targeted for theft. Presumably, even Bero knows not to steal jade from “real Green Bones”.

    From the booth, we oversee clan territories, in particular the armpit. Fonda Lee doesn’t mention why it’s named the armpit, but one could guess it has something to do with stink, where there is “someone pissing on us.”

    The would-be theft takes place in a bathroom stall amid the stench of vomit.

    Jade in hand, Bero runs up stairs, leaps on top of tables, and tears through screen doors. The jade propels him past diners, up to a view of the ocean. “He flew toward the patio railing.” Flew—up and toward the source of a cooling breeze and away from sticky, fragrant Janloon. It’s a hell to heaven run that lasts four paragraphs, a rush that feels both magical and drug-like: paragraph 1 locked door; 2 escape up stairs; 3 transcendence and ecstacy; and 4 invincibility.

    Then one sentence. “This was the power of jade.”

    Bero basks in jade magic in full view of an expansive ocean. Then Fonda Lee repeats “flew”—before everything crashes down in one hard stop and (beginning of Chapter 2) Bero is thrown back into the dining room, stripped of jade, and dragged down the stairs back to the booth.

    “Mr. Une ran up, waving his arms in protest. “Shon-jen, I beg you, please, (italics!) not in the dining room! (end italics)” He has to beg a midrank, even though he owns the restaurant.

    Like conjoined twins, the theme of controlling territory, even a one-building restaurant, binds inextricably with the possession of jade.

  • Aphrodite says:

    I used to enjoy “traditional” fantasy as a teen, but tired of the genre when it was just another iteration of dungeons and dragons. I think maybe that’s why the label speculative fiction may have been introduced…. I’m enjoying this very sophisticated and well-crafted approach to fantasy. As Michael noted above, there’s very little suspension of disbelief required. It’s extremely plausible and the world building is well-paced and evocative.

  • elena98365 says:

    Great start to a book, involving action and characters I could immediately relate to or at least clearly understand what motivates them. And makes me glad not to be a foolish teenager with dreams to big for my powers!

  • Michelle Murray says:

    I’m struggling to keep track of the characters aside from Sampa and Hilo. That’s making this very difficult to read for me. I will struggle on.

    • I struggled as well. The good news is that the struggle is limited to the opening chapters, read them again and you should be ok.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    Mulling over it much later, I do remember being disengaged by Bero’s actions, and afraid he was going to be the MC. I recall that at the end of the chapter, I wasn’t sure who was going to be the MC. I found Hilo more engaging, so I had hopes it might be him.

  • says:

    Initially, I really struggled to get into the book because of the omniscient POV and swift change in characters being followed – I had no idea who to root for, and didn’t really care if Bero succeeded. However, after a second attempt a month later, and finishing the book, I can appreciate how this works and how it builds a greater appreciation for the world through Bero’s eyes.

    The last few paragraphs where Bero has the jade changed my whole attitude to the book. Suddenly the POV becomes close and active, the pace quickens, the detail changes from describing the entire setting to what Bero experiences, and so much more of the text is about what Bero feels. Instead of “His head was ringing from the gunshot, and everything was happening as if in a soundless chamber”, its “The scrape of chair legs, the crash of a plate, the taste of the air on his tongue…” Instead of a blow by blow account of Shon grabbing Sampa, it’s “Someone reached out to grab him”. It’s as if the author is trying to convey how different life is with jade through the style.

    Also, the different vocabulary stands out very well in this chapter – something the author does well to separate Bero from the Green Bones. “Stay cut, keke”

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