Exclusive: Fonda Lee on her new book ‘Jade Legacy’ and ending an era

Image: Elena Rose photography
Image: Elena Rose photography /

The final chapter of the Green Bone Saga has almost arrived! To mark the occasion, author Fonda Lee tells us about ending an era with the Kaul family.

November has been a fantastic month at the end of a stellar year for fantasy books. Last week saw the release of Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Emperor, and now, before we’ve even had time to fully process that, comes the final volume of Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga. Jade Legacy is one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year, and with good reason: the final volume of this series is an absolute masterclass on how to stick the landing on a very complex and powerful story.

Set in a world modeled on the latter half of the twentieth century, Lee’s trilogy is a fusion of crime stories like The Godfather and tales about the Yakuza, epic fantasy magical battles and martial arts duels, global expansionism and cultural examination, and, at its core, a deeply wrought family saga. It follows various members of the Kaul family of the No Peak clan as they attempt to stave off the success of the rival Mountain clan, with whom they’re been vying for control of the island nation of Kekon and its supply of magical jade. The setting alone would be enough to make the series stand out, but combined with all the other elements — like the vividly realized magic system and hyper-realistic family dynamics — The Green Bone Saga manages to achieve that rare feat of being truly unique amid the crowded fantasy landscape.

Jade Legacy marks the end of the series, and while the first two books, 2017’s Jade City and 2019’s Jade War, were both amazing in their own right, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this newest book surpasses them in almost every way. To mark the release of this epic conclusion, author Fonda Lee stopped by Winter Is Coming to talk about Jade LegacyThe Green Bone Saga, and ending an era.

Image: Elena Rose photography
Image: Elena Rose photography /

Daniel Roman: Hi Fonda! First of all, thank you so much for joining us today and congratulations on finishing out this trilogy in such style. Jade Legacy is an incredible book and I’ve been really excited to talk with you about it. (It’s carved out a place in my top five books of all time.)

Fonda Lee: I’m delighted to hear that. Thank you.

DR: Looking back on the series, what were some of the most meaningful moments for you as an author during this journey with the Kaul family?

FL: There’ve been a lot of memorable moments. It was a fantastic stroke of luck that the manuscript for Jade City landed with the right acquiring editor. (My agent, my editor, and I wrote about the circumstances in this Manuscript Wish List post). Winning the World Fantasy Award was an unforgettable honor. Some others: The books being optioned for television development. Seeing fan art of the characters. Readers naming their pets after the characters and getting Green Bone Saga-inspired tattoos. The feeling of satisfaction and relief that came after handing in the final manuscript of Jade Legacy and bringing the saga to a close.

DR: Unlike Jade City and Jade War, the events of Jade Legacy are spread over the course of decades. How did you approach the much larger timeframe of this book, and were there any specific challenges that arose from it?

FL: Knowing the third book would span decades often made the task of writing it seem insurmountable. The way I handled it was to think of the entire novel as a long-running television show and to break the story down into “seasons.” I’d already established a structure for the novels that involved the use of interludes, so in this final book, I used those interludes to mark the larger passages of time and treated the four sections of the book almost like a tetrology, each with their own narrative arc that builds toward the overall conclusion.

One of the greatest challenges was simply keeping track of everything. There were a lot of events, characters, and details to keep straight. I had to take into account the ages and status of characters over time, political change on a national and international level, and advances in technology, to name a few recurring considerations. I had a massive timeline (in a software program called Aeon Timeline) and copious notes I was constantly adjusting and referring to.

Image: Orbit
Image: Orbit /

DR: The Green Bone Saga is set in a more modern and recognizable world than the average fantasy series, and there are tons of technological advancements, political shifts, and global changes over the course of the story. How did you approach shaping this world to make it feel like it was constantly evolving? And were there any particular areas that demanded extra research?

FL: The timeframe of the trilogy is analogous to our latter half of the twentieth century, so I kept that parallel in mind as the story progressed. The forces of modernization, globalization, Cold War-era politics, free trade, social change, and cross-cultural influences that affected our own world during that period are all evident in Jade Legacy. I was always carefully sliding in details that showed how the world was evolving over time. I’d mention that a new high rise tower had been constructed, or that immigrants had moved into a neighborhood, or I would depict the characters going from using typewriters and landlines to computers and flip phones.

Over the course of decades, the No Peak clan expands its influence into other cities and countries, as well as into entertainment and medicine and other industries. And they find themselves in conflict with a lot of other entities with interests in jade. I drew on a lot of real world analogues and did research into how acupuncture was legalized in the United States, the rise of the Hong Kong cinema and Triad involvement in the industry, the U.S. Cold War foreign policy of funding anti-communist rebels, Blackwater and other private military companies, and deep sea diamond mining, among other things.

DR: What was your favorite moment to write in Jade Legacy? Or conversely…was there any moment you were dreading? (Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, of course.)

FL: I can’t pinpoint a favorite moment; there are too many of them. I put a lot of work into the big action set pieces as well as the intricate political maneuvering, but some of the most surprisingly enjoyable scenes to write are the ones that showcase Hilo’s relationship with his children. I’m especially fond of the chapters with Jaya, who’s very much her father’s daughter.

I dreaded writing certain character deaths. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say some characters die in this book. But I can’t make a death land emotionally for the reader if it doesn’t land for me first. I wrote some of those scenes with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, wishing I didn’t have to put the words down.

DR: The Kaul family might take the prize for being one of the most deeply realized fictional families in the SFF genre. Can you talk a little about how you developed the various dynamics, relationships, and personalities for the Kauls of the No Peak clan?

FL: I just try to make them real people. Every one of them has strengths, insecurities, goals, blind spots, and aspects of their personalities that remain the same even as they mature and evolve as human beings. I think about how each one of them views and relates to every other member of the family, so we get a fully-developed perspective on each character because we’re seeing them through the eyes of those closest to them. There’s one main character in this trilogy: the Kaul family. Each point of view character brings insight into the family as a whole.

DR: I also wanted to take a minute to talk about Anden specifically, because of all the characters in The Green Bone Saga, his journey kept me constantly guessing about what his ultimate future in the story might be. Can you talk a little about how you shaped Anden’s arc, and what made you decide to take him in the direction you did in Jade Legacy? Did you always know where his story was going?

FL: Yes. The last scene with Anden in Jade Legacy has been in my mind for years. I didn’t know exactly how his journey would unfold, but I knew the ultimate destination from very early on. Anden is the character with the most complicated facets to his identity, and he has to carve out a path for himself that hasn’t ever been followed by anyone else before. In many ways, his development as a character parallels the evolution of Kekon and Green Bone culture as it finds its place in the modern world.

Image: Orbit
Image: Orbit /

DR: Recently, you’ve been releasing some Green Bone Saga short fiction through your Patreon. Can you talk a little about those stories, and why you chose to focus on the characters/events you did in them?

FL: Honestly, I just didn’t want to leave the characters behind quite yet. At the start of Jade City, the Kaul siblings are adults in their twenties and thirties who already have a lot of personal and family history, so I wanted to explore those backstories on the page a little more. Some of my favorite moments in the Green Bone Saga are the flashbacks to the characters in their youth—for example, how Hilo and the Maik brothers first became friends. And there are secondary characters in the Green Bone Saga, like Kaul Sen and Aun Ure (Anden’s mom) that I knew would’ve been such interesting protagonists in their own right if the narrative spotlight had focused on their generation. Writing for my Patreon allowed me to spend some more time in the world and with the characters I knew so well in a fun, low-pressure way, because these extra stories weren’t responsible for driving forward the plot of a massive novel.

DR: This release marks the end of the largest and most ambitious series you’ve published to date. What’s next for you, now that this generation of the Kaul family saga is finished?

FL: Since turning in Jade Legacy earlier this year, I’ve been writing novellas and short fiction. I needed a break from working on such a huge, complex saga, and it was satisfying to knock out some smaller projects. I wrote two novellas, one of which, The Jade Setter of Janloon, is a standalone prequel to The Green Bone Saga that comes out from Subterranean Press next spring. I also wrote some short stories, some of which went on my Patreon, and a couple others will appear in anthologies or magazines. I’m just now feeling ready to turn my attention to developing my next novel series. I have the vision for it, but it’s still too early to say much.

DR: What are some books, films, or shows that you’ve been really enjoying of late? Bonus points if they’re recent releases!

FL: I saw Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune on opening weekend and loved it. I’m currently watching and enjoying Warrior on HBO Max because so many people have told me it gave them Green Bone Saga vibes. I haven’t had much time to read this month, but I’m reading the Avatar: the Last Airbender tie-in novels, The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi, and the first book in the Rook & Rose fantasy series, The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick. And on the anime front, I’m making my way through Code Geass.

DR: To end on a fun note: You’re building a new clan from scratch by recruiting characters from other fantasy and science fiction stories. Setting aside the obvious sticking point of genetic Jade affinity, who would you choose to be your Pillar, Horn, and Weather Man?

FL: Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse series would be an incredibly effective clan Pillar. She exudes poise and authority, she knows and carries the weight of dynastic leadership, she’s ruthless, patriotic, protective, determined, and shrewd. Tyrion Lannister from ASOIF has the qualities of a master strategist that are needed in an excellent Weather Man. And a good Horn is an exceptional warrior but also a cunning tactician and skilled leader; I’d pick T’Challa from Black Panther. Seeing those three characters endowed with jade abilities and working together to run a Green Bone clan would sure be something.

DR: Thank you again for taking the time to discuss your work with us today, Fonda!

FL: Thank you for your questions and for having me on Winter Is Coming!

Jade Legacy is out on Tuesday, November 30 from Orbit Books. In the meantime, Jade City and Jade War are both available to get caught up on the series, and you can follow Fonda Lee on her website, Twitter, Instagram and Patreon.

Keep an eye out for our spoiler-free review in the days leading up to the book release as well!

Next. Andrea Stewart talks The Bone Shard Emperor. dark

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