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.

 

Could a ‘Goblin Emperor’ Have Prevented the French Revolution?

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor has earned what might be termed a fantasy Grand Slam: the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and nominations for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

To make her achievement even more noteworthy, Addison, like Maia, the royal goblin at the heart of the book, is herself a fiction.

The pseudonym was created by author Sarah Monette to satisfy the demands of the publishing industry. As she explains to me in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, her real name had become a “deal-breaker” after sales of the four books of her Doctrine of Labyrinths series had fallen short of expectations.

Tor Books was eager to buy her tale of an innocent and virtually forgotten heir who ascends to the throne of the Elflands after the simultaneous deaths of his father and brothers, but they had one condition. “Tor said, ‘We really want to take you on. We’re very enthusiastic and excited, but we can’t do it under your real name. You have to pick a pseudonym.’ And I wanted to continue having a publishing career. So I picked a pseudonym.”

While the name change might have given Monette a clean slate of sorts, it’s clear to me that The Goblin Emperor‘s success relies largely on her prodigious skills as a storyteller. But Monette modestly speculates that something else might also be at play–that people may also be drawn to an ingredient that is rare in fantasy: idealism.

“So much of fantasy right now has been so influenced by George R.R. Martin–which, hey, that’s excellent as it should be–but it does mean that things have been very grim and bleak and pessimistic and cynical,” she says. In contrast, The Goblin Emperor “is arguing that doing the right thing will win; that is, if you try your best to be ethical and compassionate, you will come out on top.”

There’s no question that Maia’s insistence on behaving ethically is refreshing. He faces down cronyism, social inequality and racism by hewing to the values of his Goblin mother, which lead him, among other things, to regard his subjects as equals.

“I wish I could say that I believed that worked all the time in the real world, but I think if we don’t make up stories where it does work, it’s never going to work,” Monette says.

In fact, it was the real world that inspired Monette to create an enlightened emperor. “What I was doing was actually was trying to figure out if there was a way out of the French Revolution without the guillotine and Terror and all the really horrific horrific things that happened.” In other words, if Louis XV been more like Maia, could the French achieved liberté, égalité, fraternité without so much bloodshed?

Not only do I find Maia refreshing, but I also find it refreshing that The Goblin Emperor is a stand-alone (this coming from someone who wrote a two-part series). Rest assured, however, that while Monette has no plans to revisit Maia, she remains loyal to the speculative genres.

“All fiction is lies but science fiction, fantasy and horror sort of flag themselves and say ‘Hey–not true. This isn’t what the real world is like.’ … The combination of the realistic and the openly unreal is to me something that is endlessly fascinating and that I want to do when I write and I enjoy reading when I find it.”

Podcast No. 12: ‘You’re only as good as your last book,’ says Kameron Hurley, author of The Mirror Empire

Here are some highlights from my conversation with Kameron Hurley, author of The Mirror Empire, on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Although her first book was a success (winning the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel), the other two books in the series, Infidel and Rapture, were hurt by the financial troubles of the publisher. Hurley rallied, finding a new agent and a new publisher, but the path wasn’t easy. As she says, “You’re only as good as your last book. If your last book doesn’t sell, then you’re not going to sell other work. … This is an up and down business. It’s not a straight trajectory. You have to work very hard, and I think that’s very motivating for me to know I have to work very hard just to stay in the game.”

While writing is a solitary affair, Hurley has surrounded herself with a circle of supporters—and advises everyone to do the same. “If you’re going to have a goal in life… You want to be a CEO, you want to open your own business, you want to be a writer [then] you need to surround yourself with people who support what you are doing. And that’s everyone. If your family doesn’t support what you do then maybe don’t see them as much. I hate to say it. And if you have a partner who doesn’t support what you do, then maybe you should look at a different partner. If the agent that you have is not working out and your styles just do not work and you’re not getting what you need from that relationship then you need to find an agent that works.”

Check out Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought”—about the history of women in conflict—which was the first blog post ever to win a Hugo Award. 

What Does it Take to be an Emperor?

What does it take to be an emperor?

That question is at the heart of Brian Staveley’s debut novel The Emperor’s Blades. In this first of a projected trilogy, Staveley focuses on three siblings. They are the children of the assassinated emperor of Annur, a descendant of the Goddess of Fire whose irises look like flames. Kaden, the designated heir, has spent the last eight years training in far off mountains with monks. He’s physically strong and he’s learned to withstand deprivation. He’s also an expert at drawing pictures, capturing images perfectly in his memory and suffering the abuse of his never-satisfied teachers without complaint.

But is he ready to take on the responsibilities of emperor, a position that will require him to hold together alliances, manage a large-scale bureaucracy, and foster the admiration of citizens on two continents? In his interview on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Staveley describes the three types of tension that power good storytelling: psychological, social, and environmental. “If you’re writing a mountaineering story,” he explains, “the psychological tension might be one character’s fear of heights, and the social tension might be that two of the characters on the expedition hate each other, and then the environmental tension would be that there are constant avalanches trying to destroy them. And I think the stories I like … combine all three of those.”

Staveley also discusses how his experiences teaching ancient history, world religion and comparative philosophy to high school students helped him with world-building, his method for keeping track of his numerous characters and storylines (lots and lots of Word files), and the difficult task his characters face of separating myth from historical fact.

Staveley’s vision is enormous. Not only is The Emperor’s Blades itself intricate and multi-layered, but the author had originally envisioned writing seven books. His editor at Tor limited him to three, and Staveley expects to wrap up the series (known as the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne) with the final installment in 2016. But with four books on the chopping block, readers can expect eventually to hear more about the world in which these events take places.

 “The world is a large place,” he says. “There are always other stories to tell.”