Jade Fire Gold – June CL Tan’s magical xianxia inspired debut novel – is a book about vengeance. But more than that, it’s a story of characters paying the price for their ancestors’ misdeeds and trying desperately to atone for them too. Weaving East Asian mythology and folk tales with hope-filled slow-burning romance and epic martial arts action, it’s the kind of novel you race through, whilst all the while hoping you won’t ever reach the end.
Split between two engaging perspectives, Jade Fire Gold centres on Ahn, a peasant girl with no past and family except for the adopted grandmother who brought her up, and Altan, a lost heir who had his future stolen as a child, and who’s hell-bent on reclaiming the throne that was taken from him. Apart, these two young and wounded characters are struggling through life, trying to survive amidst a brutal regime that kills anyone with magical abilities. When their worlds collide, igniting a spark within them both, Altan sees a path to retribution, whilst Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her shadowy past and master her magic.
Neither Ahn nor Altan anticipate the romance that begins to blossom between them as they travel together, evading enemies and fighting both for and against their respective and shared destinies. In a world where compassion can be a weakness and love is wielded as a weapon, Ahn and Altan must decide what’s truly important to them. Is it revenge and justice? Is it family and duty? Or is it a greater good that goes beyond what either of them are searching for?
“Pages can be burnt; words, erased. Scribes can be persuaded to write new tales, new books. A new past to suit the agenda of those in power. History is never written by its victims.”
From the moment Jade Fire Gold begins, Tan’s xianxia and wuxia influences dance across the pages – whether it’s in the thrilling martial arts fight sequences, which feel as cinematic as the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, or the wider mythology which weaves folklore, religion and elemental magic. The different characters’ ability to manipulate fire, water, air and earth is one of the novel’s strengths, adding an exciting magical element to a story that’s grounded in traditional Chinese culture and the historical themes of war, oppression and colonisation.
Yet at the very heart of Jade Fire Gold is a story of love and family; the things we do, both good and bad, for those we love, and the things we are willing to give up to keep our families and friends safe. Both Ahn and Altan risk becoming either the villains or the victims in their own stories because they care so deeply. And that’s what really shines through in Tan’s writing – the fact that her two central characters are both such compassionate, kind and selfless people. They want to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing themselves and their personal missions in the process.
As with so many fantasy novels, Jade Fire Gold struggles to get the pacing just right. The captivating action keeps the story flowing but that also means that some of the more important, significant moments are dealt with a little too quickly, particularly the last few chapters, which feel too easily resolved after such a weighty build-up. However, the epilogue more than makes up for any pacing missteps, promising an even more exciting sequel that will continue the epic adventure of this first book, whilst introducing a new character who’s set to shake up the entire story – not to mention throw Ahn and Altan’s allegiance into disarray. With action, romance and beautifully rich detail, this is absolutely a series to follow through to the end.
Jade Fire Gold was published on 4 November 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton