A soaring, vividly written fantasy inspired by Chinese mythology, Jade Fire Gold is an absolute must-read, especially for YA fantasy fans. The consensus among us co-bloggers as we were reading was that we couldn’t put it down! Without further ado, read on to learn more about Jade Fire Gold, followed by our (very spoiler-y) group discussion:
Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan
In an empire on the brink of war…
Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.
Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.
When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities. But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.
Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame. -Summary via Goodreads
NOTE: Major spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read Jade Fire Gold yet, go read it and come back! This discussion post will be here when you’re done.
Before we really dig in, let’s talk about our reading experience! How did you like Jade Fire Gold?
Jessica: Things have been pretty hectic for me lately, so I didn’t have a chance to read for this book discussion until the last minute… but when I did start reading I immediately got sucked into this incredible fantasy world and the fast-paced storytelling.
Crystal: I have also been very busy, but once I started, I couldn’t put the book down. I spent a Saturday morning cuddled up in my comfy chair with plenty of tea basically reading straight through. I might note that tea was brought up quite a few times too. I wanted to try the chilled osmanthus tea with gogi berries that Ahn gets to enjoy.
Audrey: I had a blast reading Jade Fire Gold! I’ve been craving fantasy lately after a year where I largely stuck to contemporary novels, and this book was immensely satisfying to read. Like Crystal, I finished the book in a single sitting. It was really nice to immerse myself in such a rich, complicated world.
K. Imani: I had planned to take a week to read it slowly, a little bit each night, and well, that plan fell apart very quickly. I was so into the story, the characters, all the twists and turns that I think I finished it in about 3 nights. I know sleep was sacrificed, I was that into the story.
What’s so exciting about Jade Fire Gold is that it joins the growing number of YA Asian fantasy books by Asian authors. There’s clearly a lot of nuance and thought that went into the setting. What about the worldbuilding leapt out to you?
Jessica: There’s a lot to love about Jade Fire Gold’s worldbuilding, but I think my favorite part was all the languages. I was so excited to see some Mandarin incorporated into the story as character names and place names. And not just Mandarin — it’s clear throughout the book that the characters and cultures are multilingual. One example is how Ahn calls her grandmother “Ama” (which is what I call my grandmother, as a Taiwanese American!), but other characters in the book call her Grandma Jia. I really appreciated how the story, in many different ways, acknowledged that no single culture is a monolith. It really highlighted how history influences how different cultures and languages interact. And of course I loved the nods to Chinese mythology and culture, such as the moon goddess Chang’e and the archer Hou Yi.
Crystal: I’m glad you pointed that out with the language. I didn’t know about those distinctions, but appreciate that readers familiar with the language will pick up on that. I feel like the appearance of the world caught my attention. She tells of the misty mountains, the palace, the small villages and of course there is desert. Even the harsh desert has beauty and as you mentioned, shows mixing and interaction, “…you will see bands of cool blues and purples from the deepest indigo to the palest lilac. Glance the other way and the sky bleeds warm tangerine to rosy coral. Look up and the two worlds meld seamlessly into each other, clasping their vibrant fingers into a prayer.”
Audrey: Beyond what you have already mentioned, one of the things that I really enjoyed was the complexity in characters’ loyalties and motivations. Are you loyal to the big picture concept of the country, and thus doing what you think is best to ensure its stability? Are you loyal to the usurper’s line because they have been good to you? Are you loyal who ought to be on the throne, even if claiming the throne is going to cause significant bloodshed and possibly weaken the country in its neighbors’ eyes? What happens when family or friendship or romantic love brings you into conflict with what you believe? There are multiple organizations, families, and philosophies in Jade Fire Gold, all vying for power and survival with different justifications and rationalizations for their actions. Too often that kind of complexity gets flattened or simplified by an author who doesn’t know a culture, so I’m really excited to see more Asian fantasy books by Asian authors.
K. Imani: I agree with Audrey. The complexity of the world is what really stuck with me. There was so much rich history and current politics that both Altan and Ahn had to sift through to understand their current roles and how to bring about change that the world felt so complete and real for me.
Early on, Altan reflects that “history is never written by its victims.” This theme of the narrative of history, and who gets to dictate how it’s told, recurs throughout the book. What were some examples of this that you saw? How did you relate to this theme?
Crystal: The most egregious example is the scrolls and what is there or not. I have a complicated relationship with organized religion, so I really noticed the priests. The leadership has knowledge that doesn’t get shared with everyone so that they can manipulate others.
K. Imani: The hypocrisy of the priests and the leadership stood out to me as well. The fact that the priests basically have the same magic as the Tiensai, but made society believe the Tiensai were the problem clearly showed how the victor is usually the one who writes history. I felt much of the same frustration Ahn felt as she slowly learned the truth and learned her father’s role in the persecution of the Tiensai, but I also admired her resolve to bring about change after learning the truth.
Audrey: On a personal level, the story Ahn’s father tells her when they first reunite is a great example of this. With Ahn’s mother dead, there is no one readily available to contradict Ahn’s father. The story he spins is plausible, and it paints him as a noble and tragic man: “Family before self, country before family. That is the honorable way to live.” The revelation of what really happened between Ahn’s parents and why Ahn’s mother fled with her is chilling and utterly upends Ahn’s relationship with her father.
Jessica: This was such a powerful recurring theme — and once I started paying attention, I realized it was incredibly important to the whole story. History being written by the oppressor is why the Tiensai are persecuted, why key history about the sword is repressed, and so much more. One brief moment that really struck me was when Ahn overhears some wealthy people plotting to hide away their son so he can’t be drafted into the army — right after we see a mother from a poor village get her young son taken away. The wealthy and high status look out for themselves — there’s no sense of collective responsibility or compassion. Which brings me to the next question…
The subtitle on the cover of Jade Fire Gold is “Her destiny. His revenge.” which really captures the essence of Ahn and Altan’s paths. What did you think of how their respective character arcs played out? Did you see any similarities?
Jessica: The scene I mentioned before with the wealthy family looking out for their own son reminded me of Ahn’s journey. She has this fierce loyalty for her grandmother, but especially at the beginning, she doesn’t think about anyone else. She struggles with embracing her power and taking action, even as she sees the stark contrast between the luxury and excess of the royal courts and the impoverished desert town she grew up in. The sword being (major spoilers!) both the obsidian sword and the sword of light is such a great metaphor for Ahn’s own arc. She has this great power, and she has to take responsibility for it — instead of running away from it — before it can be used for good.
Crystal: That really does fit the book perfectly. It seems that she really has no way to avoid this burden, but as she learns, she and the sword are both weapons, but they don’t have to only be used for harm. And yes, revenge definitely is what he is seeking, but again, killing everyone is not the only way to get revenge. It’s all about seeing possibilities.
Audrey: It was really interesting to see how both Ahn and Altan’s perspectives changed as they got closer to achieving destiny/revenge. In that way, Jade Fire Gold hit on many of the high points of a coming of age story. Both Ahn and Altan had to broaden their scopes and think about potential consequences to their actions–and both ended up making changes to what they originally thought they wanted because of that. It was nice to see that play out on both sides.
K. Imani: While her destiny and his revenge was singled out, I feel like the theme of destiny and revenge can apply to both Ahn and Altan and how they came to realize their purpose in uncovering the truth and bringing about change. They both learned that their individual reasons for finding the sword were insignificant in the larger implications of their quest and I liked that they both grew from that. They went from very narrow minded to broadly focused on not just changing their society for themselves, but for society as a whole. It was a beautiful growth that I feel like captures the essence of many of today’s teens.
Let’s talk romance! There’s a few couples/ships/etc in Jade Fire Gold. Who is your favorite couple? What did you think of how the romance played out?
Jessica: I absolutely love Linxi and Tang Wei, but I have to say, my ultimate ship is Leiye and Tai Shun. I just want them to be happy! Maybe in the next book. And of course, I so enjoyed the slow burn of Altan and Ahn. It really reminded me of my favorite kdramas and cdramas.
Crystal: All of the pairings were enjoyable, but for sure, I’m with you Jessica–I adored Linxi and Tang Wei and was really hoping for more time with Tai Shun and Leiye. I am also hopeful that we get that chance in another book.
Audrey: I think what I enjoyed most was that all of the romantic relationships were different, both in composition and in tropes! We had a longstanding f/f couple with Linxi and Tang Wei, who clearly adored each other and were very cute whenever they were on screen together or talked about each other. We had a m/f slowburn with Altan and Ahn that focused heavily on learning to trust each other in spite of deadly family history and dangerous magic. And with Leiye and Tai Shun, we had a potentially one-sided m/m pairing, with some nice angst about the conflict between social stations and the need to continue the imperial line. It was a lot of fun to have a variety of romance plots.
K. Imani: I’m with Audrey (again!). I loved all the relationships in the story, though I will admit that Leiye and Tai Shun did break my heart because they have so much against them. I just wanted both of them to be happy but I didn’t see how that could happen. Like Crystal, hopefully we’ll get to explore their complicated relationship more in another book. Altan and Ahn’s relationship was a little too-slow burn for me, but…I did understand why is was such a slow, slow burn. They had so much going on that they really didn’t have much time to reflect on their thoughts of each other or their relationship, so in that aspect, their relationship felt so real to me and I appreciated how it strayed from the trope.
A sequel hasn’t been confirmed (correct me if I’m wrong), but we can all agree that this definitely needs a sequel. Publishers, listen up! If there was a sequel, what would you want to read about?
Jessica: Two words — Altan’s sister.
Audrey: One of the first things I did when I finished was search for news about a sequel! Alas, I didn’t find anything. I’d love to see what Altan’s sister has been up to, but I’d really, really love to see a deep dive into court politics with Altan on the throne. How are the surrounding countries going to react? The powerful families that survived the transition? The remaining priests? There’s so much potential for upheaval and conflict even after Altan got his revenge and Ahn “fulfilled” her destiny. So I’d love a story about trying to keep hold of power after the heroes had their victory.
Crystal: I closed the book and immediately wanted to know when there would be a sequel.The story of the sister is what I kept waiting for all through the book. She is a loose end that I want to tug at.
K. Imani: There’s not a sequel? What?! With that end, hinting at Altan’s sister, we need a sequel. And…agreeing with Audrey again, I think we need a novel about the rebuilding of society and Altan’s reign. The way it ended, the country seemed to be in a perilous place with other countries and a regime change would have a rippling effect. I’d love to read all about what happens next and how all the characters grow and change with this new challenge.
And here we are, at the end of our discussion! (Sidenote: did you see the BTS shoutout in the Acknowledgments? Loved that.) As is our tradition — what YA fantasy books are you looking forward to reading next?
Crystal: I still haven’t read Chloe Gong’s book These Violent Delights and now the sequel is coming out so I am looking forward to getting to those two. And though it leans a little more sci-fi, Hunting by Stars has a touch of fantasy to it. I have been eagerly waiting for this sequel to The Marrow Thieves.
Jessica: OMG Crystal, I can’t wait for you to read These Violent Delights! You’re going to love it. As for me, I’ve got a ton on my TBR pile, but at the very top is Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen! And in 2022, I’ll be keeping an eye out for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh.
Audrey: Oooh, those all sound great. For next year, I’ve got my eye on A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin, Reclaim the Stars edited by Zoraida Córdova, and Ballad & Dagger by Daniel José Older.
K. Imani: Since I’m giving some older books some love, I’m currently re-reading The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi and have the next two books in the series lined up. I’m looking forward to A Psalm of Storms and Silence by Roseanne A. Brown, and the Skin of the Sea as well. My review of Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong publishes next week so keep an eye out. Hint…I enjoyed the book a lot!
And that’s our discussion! Thanks so much for reading. Now we want to hear from you: what did you think of Jade Fire Gold? What have you been reading and enjoying lately?