Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.

But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.

And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.

In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?

Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.

I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).

Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.

In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.

There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).

Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .

Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.

Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.

So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.

There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.

The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.

“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”

Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.

TL;DR

While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.