Art by Stas Borodin.
From the author: A behind-the-scenes, chapter-by-chapter commentary on the first 100 pages of Jade City. (Spoilers, obviously.)
Jade City: Author’s Read-Along of the First 100 Pages
The opening chapter of Jade City went through multiple iterations before it landed in its final form. I knew the story would begin with Bero’s attempted robbery in the Twice Lucky restaurant, which would serve as an introductory action piece to show the reader the power of jade, from the point of view of a clan outsider who desperately wants what he doesn’t have.
My original version of Chapter One was written entirely from Bero’s point of view. I showed an early draft to my agent and to some beta readers. The reaction was mixed. Some readers liked the opening, but others complained they were led to believe unlikeable Bero was the protagonist and were jolted when the point of view abruptly shifted and we didn’t return to Bero for some time.
I rewrote the opening chapter to be entirely from Hilo’s point of view. Seeing this new version, my agent exclaimed, “What did you do that for?!” Going straight into Hilo’s perspective shoved the reader squarely into clan concerns, with all its unfamiliar titles and terms and social structure. My agent pointed out that, true to my initial instincts, Bero’s ignorant ambition helped the reader to get a handle on the world before being introduced to the main characters and the clans.
I rewrote the chapter again, this time cutting between Bero’s scheme and the discussion going on between Hilo and the Maiks at their table, stitching together the best of both versions, preserving Bero as the opening character but making it clear that there’s a lot more going on in the story beyond the thieves’ gambit. I revised it enough times I could barely stand to look at it by the end of the process, but reading it now, I’m very happy with how it turned out.
The other task I had with the opening chapter was to give clues about the world that would orient the reader as to cultural context and time period. Notice a few of them placed deliberately in the opening pages: the mention of a pistol, non-Western naming convention (Maik Kehn and Maik Tar), chopsticks and crispy squid balls, a phonograph in the corner playing an opera song.
This chapter is all about introducing Kaul Hiloshudon, Horn of No Peak. Hilo sauntering onto the scene with his shirt collar undone and the embedded jade glinting along his collarbone remains one of my favorite visual moments in the book. The way the characters in this world wear their jade says a lot about them, none more so than the Horn, who so strongly self-identifies as a jade warrior that he makes his jade a part of himself, never to be removed.
In addition to pivoting the story squarely to No Peak, Chapter Two has the challenging task of informing readers about this world, how it works, and hinting at the coming conflict, all through Hilo’s interior thoughts and his interaction with Mr. Une, the Maiks, Shon Ju, and the thieves.
My favorite line in this chapter is, “Hilo smoked a cigarette and watched.” I can see this so clearly in my mind, and it’s a line that perfectly conveys the narrative tone I was going for.
I aimed for the introduction of the Pillar, Kaul Lanshinwan, to be a stark contrast to Hilo’s entry in the previous chapter. Being inside Lan’s head is a much more circumspect experience, and sitting with him in the garden at night feels like taking a deep breath after the earlier events.
There’s not much time to relax, though. This is where it becomes clear that the clans are headed for some sort of showdown, and Lan, as the head of No Peak, has a lot on his plate.
A few of the things I introduce in this chapter that I’m fond of: the way each character’s jade aura feels different to those with Perception; the suffix –se for endearment, in contrast with the respectful –jen, but used by Doru in a way that undermines Lan; and Hilo’s Duchesse Priza.
In my opinion, the trickiest scenes to write are emotionally heavy confrontations. A difficult conversation between characters who have a long and complicated personal relationship is filled with what is unspoken as well as spoken. Both characters are bringing emotional baggage into the room. Everything—every line of dialogue, every facial expression, every action or gesture—that the writer puts on the page has to land just right in order for the scene to feel authentic to the characters and convey precisely the tone intended. Which is why I end up working at scenes like this one obsessively. They’re the ones where I can easily spend hours on a few paragraphs.
In this case, I wanted to make sure readers felt like they had a strong sense of Lan as a person and understood the numerous pressures he’s facing: the shadow of leadership left by his now ailing grandfather, the legacy of his war hero father, the difficulty of managing the clan, the loss of his wife to an affair. And I also wanted readers to feel like Lan himself understood all this and was prepared to rise to the challenge of being Pillar. Writing Lan’s character was always about balancing his depth of strength with his understandable but unfortunate weaknesses.
Kaul Seningtun, the patriarch and grandfather, although enormously accomplished, is bitter in his old age. In many ways he is an inversion of the wise, old mentor that so often populate martial arts stories. In this chapter, he serves as a window into the past, allowing me to give some crucial information about the history of Kekon. As a pseudo-antagonist within the family, he highlights the fact that the clan conflict is set very much amid the backdrop of changing times.
During an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), a reader once asked me why I put in an explicit sex scene early on in Jade City, especially since this is the first time we’re introduced to Hilo’s girlfriend, Wen. To me, this felt like an obvious choice. Hilo is a sensual, forthright, physical personality. He resides in the reality of the moment, in physical experience, and he trusts in what he can see, hear, touch, and Perceive with his own senses. A passionate bout of sex was the perfect way for Hilo and Wen’s relationship to make its first appearance on the page.
It might seem that Wen is exactly and only what the chapter title suggests: “the Horn’s kitten.” Since she is introduced in a sex scene, readers might be inclined to believe she fits the passive mold of many female characters in gangster fiction. (A few particularly astute readers picked up on the homage to Sonny Corleone’s racy scene with his mistress Lucy Mancini in The Godfather.) Playing this up is what gives me the opportunity to twist those expectations later on.
I also believe that one of my jobs as an author is to signal fairly early on in the book what kind of story the reader is in for and what kind of writer I am. So I like to ensure there’s a solid dose of violence (the beating of Bero and Sampa) and sex (Wen and Hilo) early enough in the book so that readers can go, “sign me up for more,” or “not for me.” Just trying to being helpful!
Kaul Shaelinsan’s return to Janloon brings in not only the third of the Kaul sibings but also a broader perspective on Kekon and jade, from a character who chose to leave. Consider also the difference in Shae’s reunion with her brother Lan compared to her meeting with Hilo.
When writing a novel with multiple point-of-view characters, I think about how to convey the different personalities of the characters when the story shifts between their viewpoints. Shae, for example, is more analytical and introspective, and you’ll find that comes across in her chapters.
There’s a lot I could talk about in this chapter: the Academy as a modern twist on the martial arts school so frequently found as a setting in wuxia fiction, the traditional training of Green Bones, Anden as a character who is a both part of the family and yet separate from it, the relationship between Anden and Hilo…but to focus on just one element, let’s talk about the Itches and that memorable image of Anden’s mother and the cheese grater.
Several years ago, my family and I came down with hand-foot-and-mouth disease, a flu-like virus (not to be confused with hoof-and-mouth disease) that is characterized by feeling awful for about a week while your hands, feet, and the inside of your mouth break out in unbearably itchy blisters. As I lay in bed, feverish, my hands wrapped in ice packs to numb the desire to cut my own fingers off to stop the agony, it occurred to me that this would be a horrible way to die: itching so badly that I went insane and killed myself.
In fantasy fiction, the use of magic often has a cost. In Jade City, jade grants status and incredible abilities…but it is also allegorical of money, drugs, power, and other things in our own world that can corrupt and destroy. Too much of it is dangerous, and some people are more susceptible than others. Death by the Itches is one of the most diabolical things I’ve come up with as an author, but if you think it’s bad, well then I suggest you don’t read this article.
The concept of aisho, the honor code of Green Bones, is introduced in this chapter where Anden is abducted by Gont Asch of the Mountain clan. Aisho is a completely made-up word, but it sounds like a real word, and it’s necessary to convey an important concept specific to the story world. As a speculative fiction author, I love making up words, but I have to do so sparingly. Making up fantasy words for things that can be communicated with ordinary English is unnecessary and will merely annoy the reader. When I do make up a word, I want it to seem entirely natural and deeply embedded in the fictional culture of the people who are using it. (Also, I run a Google search to make sure it’s not already the name of a famous person or a corporate brand or a word in another language that means “diarrhea.”)
Martial codes of honor exist in our own world, of course, from the virtues of the samurai espoused by bushido; to the Chinese martial arts code of ethics known as wu de, to the Code Duello that developed in Europe and transplanted itself to the southern United States. For Kekon, I created a martial code unique to a world with magical jade, one that regulated the social behavior of a supernaturally enhanced warrior caste.
Although aisho isn’t broken and Anden isn’t harmed when he’s snatched off the street, the Mountain is stepping awfully close to the line. The tension between traditional adherence to aisho, and the necessarily ruthless tactics that the clans will be drawn toward employing in order to defeat their enemies, starts in this chapter and won’t let up through the entire trilogy.
Also, of all the antagonists I’ve ever written, Gont Asch is one of my favorites.
Cell phones are not a writer’s friend; so many misunderstandings, delays, and moments of possibly disastrous suspense are solved, and thus ruined, by the availability of immediate communication. With a story set in pre-cell phone times, I can ratchet up the tension from characters simply being unable to find and talk to each other. The conversation between Lan and Gont, and then the following one between Lan and Hilo, are short, but they’re some of my favorites in the entire book on account of their terseness and how much is said in a few lines.
There’s a short segment in this chapter where Lan recalls the fate of a minor clan, Three Run, that was recently annexed by the Mountain. This bit started out as an entire subplot; I wrote a full chapter that showed the tragic destruction of this small clan before rightfully deciding it wasn’t part of the main story and turning it into one paragraph that sets up exactly why Lan has reason to be concerned about the Mountain’s motives and tactics. That’s how it goes with writing, sometimes: you have to write out a bunch of stuff just to figure out the one paragraph.
It’s common in a great number of fantasy novels to portray magic as a “bloodright.” Often the ability to use magic is innate; characters (or certain groups of people) are either born with it or they’re not. It only seems logical to me that magic in a modern era would be subject to scientific study and that biological constraint would be challenged. Of course SN1 would be developed. Magic runs up against the modern world. In fact, no Green Bone on Kekon would describe their jade abilities as “magic.” The word doesn’t show up once in the entire book. That’s deliberate. The Kekonese consider jade to be mysterious but completely natural, and the foreigners place even less supernatural credence on “bioenergetic jade.” This is possibly why I’ve sometimes seen Jade City described as “science-fictional,” because the magic has very clear limits and is treated in such a grounded manner. (I’m more inclined to say that I like to challenge the assumptions of what constitutes fantasy and push against the lines between genres.)
I’m also drawn to tell stories where I could plausibly write the entire book over again from the perspective of the other side and make an equally compelling case for the reader’s sympathy. Although this is the story of the Kaul family, I wanted to make the characters in the Mountain, especially Ayt Mada, feel as much like real people as our protagonists. Whether it’s Gont’s backstory of surviving a “death of consequence” or Ayt Mada’s tragic childhood and stunning rise to power, I had to be economical in conveying the impression that the Kauls’ enemies have understandable motivations, reasonable goals, and rich stories of their own that we don’t know.
Book One of the Green Bone Saga. The World Fantasy Award-winning modern-era epic fantasy novel of family, honor, martial arts, and magic. The powerful Kaul family faces clan war for control of the magic jade that will determine the fate of their island country.
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