Nadia Elbaar Reviews The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee
The Jade Setter of Janloon, Fonda Lee (Subterranean 978-1-64524-062-4, $40.00, 141pp, hc) April 2022. Cover by Charis Loke.
The Jade Setter of Janloon is Fonda Lee’s spinoff novella from her recently-finished Green Bone Saga, which combines the epic martial arts of Chinese wuxia with the dangerous intrigue of gangster flicks. The Jade Setter of Janloon revisits that world and takes place just before the events of series opener Jade City.
We return to Janloon, capital of the small nation of Kekon, where jade grants superhuman abilities to the few Green Bones who – by combination of heredity, training, and luck – are capable of wielding the stone without suffering its toxic effects. Society revolves around jade and its institutions, notably the two rival Green Bone clans that control Janloon: Mountain and No Peak, each commanding a force of soldiers and magnates out for their enemy’s blood and – far more valuable – jade. But the majority of Janloon lead ordinary lives, content to keep Green Bone business (which often includes violent, jade-amplified combat) well in the background. They are protected by aisho, the code of honor that prevents Green Bones from harming the jadeless. Still, jade controls them in unseen ways. The Jade Setter of Janloon is about people on the periphery of jade, the people outside Green Bone affairs but no less directed by their outcomes.
As the apprentice to Master Isin, the best jade-setter in Janloon, Pulo Oritono’s career was already far more than he – with his mediocre Green Bone abilities – could’ve hoped for. Jade-setting skills will always be respected and in-demand, but Pulo is dissatisfied for two reasons. First is Isin’s unequivocal (but unexplained) policy that the shop remain neutral, siding with no clan, which strictly capped his potential, since the renown and profit to be made by one clan’s patronage was well worth the cost of losing the other. The second reason is that Malla, a fellow jeweler at Isin’s and a woman Pulo has affectionate feelings for, can never meet customers and receive proper credit for her work, continuing the Green Bone prejudice against the indigenous Abukei. One night, just as Pulo is about to take matters into his own hands, his hopes are dashed when the jade weapon of a notorious, high-ranking Green Bone is stolen from Isin’s shop. With Malla taken into police custody and Isin still not forthcoming with his secrets, Pulo has three days to recover the stolen object without invoking the suspicion and wrath of its owner – to save his life and everyone he cares about.
The Jade Setter of Janloon is not a mystery story; the expectation is not that we process clues in sync with Pulo to deduce the thief’s identity. Rather, while Pulo uncovers the culprit and motive, we examine Janloon’s power structures through his eyes as his desperation takes him through the levels of Janloon’s jade-stratified society. He enlists the help of Master Isin, clan Fists, and jadeless law enforcement. He negotiates with the uniquely neutral Haedo Shield clan. Ultimately, his search leads him to the criminals and underbelly of the jade society – and their victims.
While it is helpful to have read at least some of the trilogy beforehand (since world-building is limited here), The Jade Setter of Janloon’s emphasis is not on the jade plot, but on questions of power. What does it mean to have power? Who does power serve? What does neutrality accomplish? What happens to those invisible to power? Even fresh readers can engage these questions without having read the full trilogy. Still, one question that lingered with me, because it resonates directly with Jade City, Can power be wielded with compassion?
Published after the Green Bone Saga but before the events of the first book, I have a hard time deciding whether The Jade Setter of Janloon’s effect on the whole Green Bone story is retrospective or retrogressive. We should keep in mind that the novella is the Before state, and Janloon begins to shift in anticipation of No Peak and Mountain clans’ new leaders and the trilogy that follows. As a spinoff, The Jade Setter of Janloon fulfills the nostalgia of the Green Bone Saga. But trilogy readers should also keep Pulo’s words in mind: ‘‘There are Green Bones and then there are Green Bones.’’ Sympathizing with Pulo’s increasing bitterness towards Green Bones was disorienting, even more so when he’s directly interacting with familiar, beloved ones from the trilogy. Pulo’s disappointment – that the ones in power can’t/won’t/aren’t doing more to help – and desperation are much more distressing than anything similar in Green Bone Saga because no main character in the trilogy (even the non-Green Bones) is as truly powerless as Pulo. His frustration, our disenchantment, and Green Bone declension seems to be the intended effect–since Lee’s precise, kinetic writing remains strong, but the action scenes in The Jade Setter of Janloon have none of the trilogy’s wuxia-gangster glamor.
Green Bone Saga and The Jade Setter of Janloon have opposite momentum: the trilogy moves towards jade and the novella away from it. In this sense, The Jade Setter of Janloon can be read independent from the trilogy, and does offer a compelling, fast-paced read on its own (especially its critique of power). But overall, its most successful aspects are in complementing the trilogy, though they naturally caught me off-guard. Pulo’s story is important – worth telling and examining – and I’m glad it exists as The Jade Setter of Janloon.
This review and more like it in the September 2022 issue of Locus.
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