The 3 Ms of Fonda Lee’s Jade City: Mafia, Magic and Martial Arts

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Jade City combines what its author, Fonda Lee, calls the 3 Ms: mafia, magic and martial arts.

Lee’s talent for depicting complex characters struggling with both internal and external conflicts earned Jade City nominations for the Nebula and Locus Awards. The book is her first written for adults. (Her previous books, Exo and Zeroboxer, were written for young adults and both were shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award).

Fonda Lee

Set in the fictional post-colonial nation of Kekon, Jade City introduces readers to an economic system governed by family-run clans, where power is obtained through conventional assets, such as the loyalty of businesses and politicians, as well as through use of the gemstone jade. Jade’s special powers include strength, agility and the ability to deflect weapons. But to harness these powers, a Green Bone warrior needs both an innate affinity for jade and extensive training.

Speaking with me on the “Jade is Thicker than Water” edition of New Books in Science Fiction, Lee says jade was “the natural choice” for a magic substance. “In Eastern culture, jade is considered more valuable than any other substance. It’s been referred to as the stone of heaven.” It was also a natural choice for Lee—who has black belts in karate and kung fu—to require Green Bones to undergo years of practice before they’re allowed to use jade on the streets.

“One of the things I find frustrating/annoying about some fantasy stories is this idea that the magic is just given and you are just born with it, or you … get the magic sword and now you have the power. As any martial artist knows, achieving a level of proficiency involves a long arduous amount of discipline and schooling.”

In our New Books conversation, Lee discusses her characters’ struggles with tradition and the challenge of balancing their personal desires with familial responsibilities. She also offers insight into the writing process—specifically, how she managed to polish an epic tale told from multiple viewpoints into a fast-moving page-turner.

 

Multi-tasking is Ken Liu’s Middle Name

I loved talking to Ken Liu on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy about two very different projects. One was his translation of Cixin Liu’s THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM and the other was his new (and first) novel THE GRACE OF KINGS. Below is my post describing the interview (my 17th!) on the New Books Network.


Short story writing, novel writing, and translating require a variety of skills and strengths that are hardly ever found in a single person. Ken Liu is one of those rare individuals who has them all.

He is perhaps best known for short stories like The Paper Menagerie, which (according to his Wikipedia entry) was the first work of fiction to earn Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

But this year he’s making waves with two longer projects, which are the focus of his New Books interview: his translation of Cixin Liu‘s The Three-Body Problem and his debut novel The Grace of Kings.

The Three-Body Problem has been a break-out success in China for Cixin Liu, who has won China’s Galaxy Award for science fiction nine times. The Three-Body Problem is also the first hard science-fiction novel by an author from the People’s Republic of China to be translated into English.

Ken Liu (who is not related to Cixin Liu) says sales numbers for science fiction in China would be the envy of American publishers, but Chinese publishers have traditionally considered it a niche market. That is, until The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels came along. Officially, Chinese readers have bought about 400,000 copies of the three-volume series but Liu says the actual number of readers is far larger as books get passed among friends and family.

Liu anticipated it would be difficult to translate the language of science, but the cultural references proved more challenging. Ultimately, he decided to add concise footnotes to fill in some gaps without overwhelming readers with too much information. The success of his translation is reflected in the The Three-Body Problem‘s Nebula and Hugo nominations for best novel.

The Grace of Kings, the first book in Liu’s projected Dandelion Dynasty, is a very different project–an epic fantasy/science-fiction mashup that Liu calls “silkpunk.” Liu grew up in a Chinese speaking household. “Every culture has its own set of foundational narratives that are echoed and dialogued with and re-imagined over and over again… They’re stories about how a people embody their own values and see themselves as having meaning in the universe.” In the case of The Grace of Kings, Liu drew from an ancient historical struggle known as the Chu-Han Contention but reimagines it in a secondary world, using both classic Western and Chinese storytelling techniques.

“The result is this melding of everything into this fantastical universe that I call silkpunk,” Liu says. “So there are battle kites and mechanical contraptions of various sorts, underwater boats and airships that propel themselves with giant feathered oars that represent the kinds of things you see in Chinese block prints and historical romances [but] sort of blown up and extended into a new technology vocabulary that I had a lot fun playing with.”