5/5 stars on Goodreads
|Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee|
First up: if you’re expecting unique sci-fi like Yoon Ha Lee’s brilliant The Machineries of Empire series, this is not it. It’s not sci-fi at all, but historical fantasy that is perfect for the fans of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series. However, even if you’re a diehard sci-fi fan, I recommend you give this book a chance. If for nothing else, to see how an author can pull off such a different genre and writing style so brilliantly. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Phoenix Extravagant is set in a country that resembles turn of the twentieth-century Korea; mostly sticking to its traditions, but with cars and electric light. It has been invaded a decade earlier by a country with different but similar traditions (i.e. Japan) and has since settled into an uneasy relationship with the conqueror that consist of conforming and rebelling.
Gyen Jebi is the sole point of view character. They are an artist and they only want to paint, even if it means working for the invaders. They are ready to conform in other ways too; they have learned the invaders’ language and officially changed their name to fit in better—a decision that causes a break-up with their sister. But when it turns out that what they paint directly helps the enemy to not only oppress their people but to destroy the country’s cultural heritage too, they start having second thoughts. Their journey from an observer to an active agent is fairly fast, but the outcome isn’t entirely what they expected.
Jebi is an interesting character. They don’t identify as a man or a woman but as not gendered. No attention is drawn to this, apart from the pronoun ‘they’ with which Jebi is referred to. There are other people like Jebi and people recognise them for what they are without them having to ever mention it. It doesn’t cause them any grief, nor is it something they have to think about. The author doesn’t tease readers with hints of what they may have started as and there is no explanation given to why such choice was made—or if it was a choice at all. I would’ve liked to know if this stems from actual Korean tradition or if it’s something the author created for this book, but all in all, it worked well, even if it was an unnecessary detail in the character’s development and how the story played out.
The world-building is great. The traditional Korean culture comes alive in small details that are treated as natural facets of Jebi’s life without unnecessary explanations—though they are explained better than the alien cultures in the Machines of the Empire series, making it easier to understand. The fantasy elements are fairly light and woven into the narrative so seamlessly that the reader doesn’t necessarily even notice them. There are automatons, mechanical humanoids that are given life with magic. There is a huge dragon automaton too, the key to the story, as Jebi is tasked with creating the correct magical sentence structure that would operate it. In the end, Jebi learns this magic so well that they become instrumental in a rebellion against the invader. And the poetic ending brings home for good that we’re not dealing with reality after all.
The pace of the narrative is fairly fast. Since this a stand-alone novel and not the first in trilogy, it takes no time at all before Jebi finds themself trying to rebel against the invaders. The story is easy to follow—again, much unlike the Machines of the Empire—and interesting. There’s drama and tragedy, but good and sweet moments too. All in all, it’s excellent historical fantasy.