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.

Age of Empyre – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Legends of the First Empire #6

Epic, Fantasy

Riyria Enterprises; May 5, 2020

366 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware: Spoilers for the previous Legends of the First Empire through Age of Death!

“You’re taller than I remember.”
“I grew up.”
He made a disapproving sound in his throat. “You should try to avoid that in the future.”
“Well, I’m dead, so that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

The epic conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire does not disappoint! While I was torn on the first three (I threw TWO at the wall, and took a month to read the third), the next two absolutely wowed me. The third does a great job of concluding the overarching story of the war between the Rhunes and the Fhrey, and the establishment of the First Empire. Just keep in mind that it’s called the Legends of the First Empire for a reason; the events within occurred so long ago (3000 years, I think) that they’ve become, well, legends. Though I certainly knew what to expect in general (it IS a prequel to Riyria, obviously, so it can’t be too much of a surprise for any veterans of those books), Empyre does provide a few twists and turns, along with some events that actually took me by surprise. It’s like the legend of King Arthur or Robin Hood that often changes in each telling. The broad strokes may be the same—but legends in the making can be quite different than how they turn out on the page.

With over half our cast still dead, the living fight so that those gone may yet have a world to return to. But the war has taken its toll. Dissent and hopelessness are on the rise on both sides of the conflict. Currently on the losing side, the Fhrey have paid an unbelievable price to gain the upper hand. But even as humanity prepares to retreat, the price proves too high for some in the Fhrey, and a desperate gamble is taken. A gamble that relies on two artists, a certain prince, and a mission that was doomed from the start. But with Brin and the other yet to escape the afterlife, all hope may’ve well and truly died (ha).

But there’s a twist. Tressa—as it will surprise no one—has been lying. And when the objective of their quest changes yet again, our heroes may yet have a hope of completing their mission. All they have to do is find their way back to life.

I tried to keep the blurb as vague as possible here. Being a six-book series (or “hexalogy”), there’s no telling where anyone will be now. And be it book four, book two, done for some months, not yet begun, not yet interested in beginning, or anywhere in-between—I don’t want to exclude anyone. That being said, there are definitely some spoilers, so if you’ve read this far… you’ve already noticed a few.

Having read the Riyria, I knew generally what to expect, though Sullivan does point out that these are LEGENDS. Like the stories of King Arthur, Beowulf, or Robin Hood. Something that has well before faded from memory and become legend. To this end, I’ve seen a few reviewers complaining that it’s different than what Riyria led them to believe. There’s bound to be some change in the story just from each telling. Sullivan does justify this further within, but I’ll leave it here. But as a side note, there are others that expected each character to have their own proper ending. This doesn’t happen. And in general, it didn’t bother me. The story wraps up the war and the establishment of the First Empire nicely. While I would’ve liked an afterward to glimpse just what what everyone got up to post-hexalogy—it really isn’t necessary. The conclusion is satisfying how it is. And that’s enough.

The main thing that annoyed me in Empyre was that Brin is credited with inventing writing. Technically it’s said before now, but Empyre refers to it a lot. Seeing as how she copied the writing from some ancient tablets she found in the Agave (in Age of Swords)—she didn’t invent it. Honestly, this probably wouldn’t’ve annoyed me so much, but Sullivan again tries to justify that it’s HER invention, even saying repeatedly (even after we find out who MADE the tablets from the Agave) that Brin had invented them. Even after the writing is noticed on the Horn of Gylindora, which predates Brin by millennia, the author still attempts to give her credit through a conversation with the Fhrey the Horn belonged to, in the land of the dead.

“To most, it looks like a battered ram’s horn. But it has markings on it.”
“Writing?”
The Fhrey nodded. “No one knows that—not yet. Right now, everyone thinks they’re just decorative markings. Some might even speculate they’re magic runes like the Orinfar. But in fact, they are words—words you can read.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because you invented the language they’re written in.”

So… his argument here is what—time travel? I don’t understand how—or why—Sullivan keeps trying to justify this. It doesn’t make any sense! Brin’s a badass anyway, she doesn’t need this extra bit. Rediscovering a lost writing system is just as impressive as inventing a new one, at least in my opinion. This is just another invention (e.g. the bow, wheels, pockets, etc) he tries to claim over the course of the series, a trend which I (very) quickly tired of.

As usual, the language is common, relaxed, not trying to reinvent anything, nor replicate that of olde. Therefore it’s quite easy to read, and quickly. I’ve always loved how well Sullivan blends action, excitement, and humor, which paves the way for quite a few memorable quotes.

“You can’t fight all of them,” Maya told him.
“Of course I can. I’m a Galantian. I’m not guaranteeing I’ll win, but I’ll try.”
“All by yourself?”
“What’re you talking about? You’ll help. And I have the Great Rain with me, and he’s got that sweet new sword.”
Rain looked like he might be sick.

The worldbuilding is as impressive as ever—particularly so considering we’re on the sixth book of the third series set on Elan (the SIXTEENTH book overall). While the First Empire is a prequel series, much of the land is undeveloped, but still memorable, though Sullivan doesn’t take quite as much pains as previous books to paint us a lovely word-picture. Of Elan, at least. The underworld, however, was easy to picture, and even sent my imagination running through its description. The characters—as usual—are amazing. Tesh, Brin, Moya, Gifford, Roan, Rain, Tekchin, Nyphron, Persephone, Suri, Mawyndulë, Imaly and even more have been fleshed out by this point. Any one of these characters probably could’ve carried the story on their own, but instead all of them meld together to create a truly epic narrative. There are even a few surprise appearances within that help the tale along. Not that it needs any help, mind.

TL;DR

An epic conclusion befitting of an epic series: Age of Empyre tells the story it sets out to and more, concluding the Legends of the First Empire in a blaze of action, adventure, and flair. While it may not appear exactly as you imagined it from the Riyria days, this hexalogy bears the title “Legends” for a reason. The plot alone provides more than enough justification to read this one—with so many threads converging at this point, it’s an epic conclusion to be sure! Meanwhile the worldbuilding and characters continue to wow, with each detail better than the last. A few hiccups remain—the group ending didn’t really appeal to me the way a personal one would’ve; and one of the story’s key points seriously tries to pitch time-travel as a justification. But, as with the latter half of the hexalogy, the pros well outweigh the cons. Plus, let’s face it—if you’ve gotten this far into Legends of the First Empire—are you really going to skip the final book? Really? Yeah, uh huh.