I love the beginning of a story. I love when the escaped droids crash-land on a sandy dessert in a galaxy far, far away or when the wizard shoves a ring into a hobbit’s hands and tells him to run. There is so much possibility, so many ways the world can change the hero, so many surprises to alter and confound my expectations. Usually I’m left wanting to go back in time to savor the adventure all over again. But sometimes we get rewarded for wanting more than a good start. We get sequels. Both of these series’ first volumes crossed my desk a year ago, and I’m happy to report that these follow-ups more than live up to their excellent beginnings.
Fonda Lee’s Jade War takes us back to the Kaul family of No Peak Clan, a crime syndicate vying for control over the city of Janloon. After the tragic events of Jade City, Kaul Hilo finds himself making a truce with his rivals, the Mountain Clan, to protect the mining and export of jade. Though he loathes the public nature of the alliance, the powers of jade are too important for the two clans to be in conflict. Hilo’s sister Shae, his second-in-command, struggles to steer the clan as international forces try to disrupt Janloon’s sovereignty over the precious jade. Their cousin Anden, banished from Janloon, starts to find his way in a new city. When aggressions finally spill over, will the clan be able to avoid an all-out war?
Lee effortlessly injects more complexity into an already-rich universe in Jade War. We get more storylines, more subterfuge and more cloak-and-dagger mafia business. But we also get some very tender and nuanced looks at what it means to be family, the meaning of community and the depths of love. And throughout it all is a sense of tenuous control, the possibility that the family could watch their success evaporate overnight. This is a maturation of the saga, an expansion in both storytelling and scale. But if you’re just craving some more jade-fueled magic, you’ll be right at home, too. There are moments when the statecraft and maneuvering between clans slowed the pace, but several scenes, including a fantastic duel in the middle of the story, picked it back up. Lee proves she’s still a master at mafia-magic storytelling, and this second volume is deeper and more ambitious than the first.
Though Rin was able to end the Third Poppy War with a massive inferno, R.F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic finds our hero in a sorry state. Overcome with grief for her lost comrades and smoking opium in order to dull the voice of the Phoenix god in her mind, she spends her time planning revenge against the treacherous Empress. When a classmate rescues her and takes her to the powerful Dragon Warlord, she finds a new cause to believe in: democracy. With a proper army, the Dragon Warlord can establish a new government in the name of peace for all. But war with the Empress draws closer every day, and when Rin discovers that her power over fire might not be permanent, she’s left to grapple with who she really is and what she really cares about.
Rin saw more pain and more blood in The Poppy War than almost any other character I have encountered in the last year. Kuang does a wonderful job of showing the effects of that pain in the initial period of this book, as well as the impact of addiction and PTSD. Rin seems destined to find war wherever she goes, and Kuang is fantastic at putting us in Rin’s head to witness her internal conflict. Rin’s army unit serves as a source of both humor and camaraderie in a sometimes-bleak world, but Rin’s ongoing war in her own mind is the real through-line in Kuang’s powerful follow-up.