#Review: THE SEARCHER, by Tana French

I have rarely been so relieved to have enjoyed a book as I was with Tana French’s The Searcher. I’m pretty certain I’ve read every novel she’s written, and until her last book before this one I’d enjoyed all of them quite a bit. I was … not a fan of The Witch Elm. I wrote a review saying so, a review that has haunted me by regularly being one of my highest-viewed posts every month since I wrote it. I don’t know why this happens so often when I write negative reviews; people seem to enjoy seeing me not like things for some reason. But I like Tana French, damn it! It was just that one book! She’s still awesome, read the Dublin Murder Squad books!

I don’t know if she’s done with that series or just taking a break from it, but the notion that her newest book, The Searcher, was also going to be a stand-alone had me … nervous. I feel bad about how well the review of Witch Elm has done. And I felt like I really needed to have The Searcher be a return to form. Chances are if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have reviewed it, but I’d have to make a decision about whether I was buying more Tana French books as they come out in the future, and I need my Irish crime fiction fix, damn it.

So: yeah. The Searcher is absolutely a return to form. In fact, it might be my favorite of her books, although I’m going to hold off on that decision for a bit and let the sense of relief fade and see how well the book holds up. It shares DNA with a lot of her previous books that was jettisoned in The Witch Elm: the main character is a detective again, although he’s retired, and the book is written in the 3rd-person present tense of the rest of her books and not the first person of Witch Elm. It is not quite a murder mystery; the main character, Cal, is a Chicago cop who has recently gone through a messy divorce and has repaired off to a crumbling house in middle-of-nowhere Ireland, hunting for peace, quiet and smallness. He is rather forcibly befriended– adopted might be a better word, or at least serially imposed upon— by one of the local kids, Trey, a thirteen-year-old from a messed-up household and badly in need of some stability. And then it comes out that Trey’s older brother has disappeared, and Cal gets dragged, mostly unwittingly, into searching for him. There is always the question of whether the brother is alive or dead, but it’s definitely more of a missing-person story than a murder mystery. Can’t have a murder mystery without a dead person, right?

The other interesting thing: Cal, as I’ve said, is retired and a recent arrival in town, and while he’s not exactly taken leave of his detective skills he’s more than a little hamstrung by the lack of any sort of institutional support or knowledge of the local power structures. There are several places in the book where he’s deciding what to do next, and frequently he runs up against well, I can’t run his phone, or do criminal history checks or anything like that because he simply doesn’t have that kind of access any longer. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a fish out of water narrative, but there are certainly elements of that type of story complicating his search, and it’s an interesting change of pace for a book that might otherwise fit in a bit too neatly with the Murder Squad protagonists.

I liked this book a lot. I liked Cal, I liked the relationship between Cal and Trey, and I liked the small cast of supporting characters that get built up over the course of the book. The book is about 450 pages long and I read it in a day; again, I’ve liked-to-loved all of her books but the one, but I don’t remember another one that demanded I finish it immediately the way this one did. There’s a single story decision that comes up at about the 2/3 mark that I still don’t quite get, but it doesn’t turn out to be the misstep that I thought it was going to be when it first happens, and the book ends quite well, I think. I read some other reviews on Goodreads and the biggest knock against the book is that it’s slow-paced. That’s definitely true, but it’s a deliberate decision and quite consistent with everything else going on in the book– Cal has moved to Ireland precisely so that he can lead a slower and more deliberate life, so the book taking its time to watch the rooks in his yard mirrors the main character’s mental state pretty precisely.

Hooray! I enjoy liking things.

#REVIEW: JADE WAR, by Fonda Lee

I’m not going to bury the lede: Jade City and Jade War, the first two books in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, are the best first two books in any speculative fiction series since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. And frankly, they may well be better.

I have been open about my affection for Jade City, the first book in the series. It was my favorite book of last year, and I reread it before starting Jade War, which just came out. I suggested in the end of my review of the first book that I expected the second novel to begin incorporating spy elements, and holy crap was I right. Jade War’s most impressive achievement is the way it effortlessly broadens the scope of the series to incorporate literally the entire planet, with not only the clan conflict going on but multiple overlapping and competing interests, from rival governments to crime gangs in other countries to any number of different ethnic groups, some in their home countries, some expatriates, and others refugees, and their (sometimes intermixed) second-generation children. The scope of the book and the ease with which Lee keeps everything straight and their alliances and motivations clear is astounding.

There are several maps at the front of the book, and damn near every place on them is relevant at some point in the story. And it does this without losing focus on the core figures from the first book: the No Peak Clan, now led by Kaul Hilo and his sister and Weather Man Kaul Shae, and Ayt Mada’s Mountain Clan.

The first book got compared to The Godfather a lot. I did it myself. And the amazing thing is that it’s not remotely unfair to compare Jade War to The Godfather, Part 2, one of the most acclaimed sequels of all time. It is, if anything, better than the first book– which, as the middle book of a trilogy, is damned near an impossible feat.

I went out onto my back porch this morning and sat out there for a couple of hours to finish the last 200 pages or so of this book. I legit had to wipe a couple of tears away when I finished it. I know I’ve already compared it to ASoIaF, but despite all of my reservations about how the last several books of that series have gone, one of its most outstanding strengths is how well-drawn its characters are. One of my weaknesses as a reader is remembering character names– I’m bloody terrible at it– and in both ASoIaF and The Green Bone Saga if I wanted to I could sit down and sketch out a character map with everyone’s names, primary affiliations and family relationships. The characters in this book are an astounding achievement on Fonda Lee’s part. I said on Twitter after I finished the book that she had the talent of any other six writers, and I mean it. As a reader, I couldn’t be happier that I get to read this series. As a writer, it’s fucking depressing, because my God I will never be this good.

I knew last year when I finished Jade City that it would be very high on my list of favorite books for that year, and it was my favorite book of a very good year. Jade War is better than Jade City. I literally cannot recommend it any more highly.

#REVIEW: JADE CITY, by Fonda Lee

34606064Every so often, shit ends up working out the way I want it to.

I bought Jade City effectively at random– I was at a Barnes and Noble with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and desperately searching for anything at all in the sci-fi section that looked like it had been written by a person of color.  Jade City was on my Amazon wish list, so I’d come across it the title before somewhere, but at the time couldn’t remember where– and, in fact, still can’t.  So I really bought the book for no other reason other than it was there, and it took me a while to get around to reading it.

You should go grab it and read it right now.

A Goodreads friend asked me the other day what “flavor of fantasy” this book was.  It’s a trickier question to answer than one might think, because here’s the thing: this isn’t really all that much of a fantasy book.  The best comparison I can make for it, honestly, is The Godfather.  Except in pseudo-Japan, which in this book is called Kekon, and while the Corleones were pretty explicitly all criminals, the No Peak clan, which all of the main characters in the book are members (or aspiring members) of, is almost more like a local governing agency than a mafia family.  The trappings are there, sorta?  And no one in the book is ever averse to using violence or various other forms of street mayhem when it’s necessary?  But there’s really no element in this book of having to hide from police, and if anything the book goes out of its way to emphasize how the clans help regulate the actual criminals.

So, the fantasy element: Kekon is the world’s only source of jade.  Jade, in this world, provides superpowers to certain people, known as Green Bones, who keep it in contact with their skin.  The more jade you can handle, the stronger you are; powers include strength, invulnerability, speed, enhanced perception, the usual bundle of Superman-esque abilities, more superhero-style than magical.  Not everyone can use jade, though; some people are simply immune to its effects where others (including most foreigners) are quickly driven crazy by exposure to it.  Jade exposure can also harm veteran Green Bones if they wear too much jade or go too far when using it.

So, yeah: Kekon is controlled by clans, and the clans tightly regulate the supply of jade and how much each clan has access to, and also how much can be exported to other countries.  There’s also a drug, called Shine, that cuts down on jade’s negative effects somewhat, allowing foreigners to use it at high doses and cutting down on jade sickness in Green Bones in smaller doses.  The drug is also pretty tightly regulated, although other countries are working hard at synthesizing it so that they can have their own Green Bones.

Take all of this and drop a clan war on top of it, along with a subplot hinting at no small amount of international intrigue– like, I can see future books in this series easily incorporating spy elements– as one clan begins smuggling jade to other countries without the others knowing and the other countries make plans to take control of Kekon’s jade production entirely.  Throw in a pretty damn compelling intergenerational family story that doesn’t even need the fantasy elements, a couple of awesome woman characters, and a subplot involving a petty street thief and you have what is easily my favorite book of the year so far, and an early frontrunner for best book of the year.   Fonda Lee is the shit, guys, and I can’t wait for the second book in this series.

Go read it.