Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Firstly, Phoenix Extravagant is exactly the kind of book we need more of – queer, anti-colonial fiction (with relatable automaton dragons!). I really enjoyed this book for the most part, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something original and fresh in the SFF genre. There were a few elements that didn’t necessarily work for me, but may not bother others so much depending on the type of story they’re looking for.

What I liked:
  • The discussion of colonialism, which is at its most powerful when this book talks about the importance of art. Phoenix Extravagant deals with the occupation of not!Korea by their not!Japanese neighbours, who enforce their rule through the use of automatons that are animated by the painting of code-like calligraphy on masks, which are then attached to them. This requires the destruction of art to make magic pigments, and there are lots of conversations about the links between art and culture, and how destroying artworks erases a significant part of a group’s cultural identity. Some of these scenes gave me chills, and I appreciated the exploration of such an underrepresented element of colonialism in this work.
  • The protagonist, Gyen Jebi. Jebi is a nonbinary artist who isn’t much interested in who rules their country as long as they can paint, until they come to understand exactly how much pain has been inflicted by the process of colonisation, and how much of themself they’ve come to give away in an effort to conform. Jebi seems to be a conflicting character among other early reviewers, but I really liked them – I found the story of someone who isn’t a fighter until they have to be much more realistic than always reading about characters who were born with a weapon clutched in their tiny fist, and appreciated how much Jebi clung to their pacifist ideals, wrestled with the consequences of their actions, and tried to find creative, non-violent solutions where possible.
  • Arazi. Seriously, I related to this animated machine so much that it’s embarrassing, and thought his wry observations brought some much needed levity to this book.
  • This book does such a great job with portraying the diversity of the queer experience in general. As noted, Jebi is nonbinary (in an f/nb relationship, you love to see it), their sister is bisexual, and their love interest’s parents are in a normalised polyamorous relationship. What I appreciated most is that this book doesn’t dwell on the specifics of Jebi being non-binary: people use their preferred pronouns automatically and without fuss, and none of the intimate scenes give any indication as to Jebi’s biological sex.
What didn’t always work for me:
  • Some of the fantasy elements didn’t feel well integrated. I thought the idea of flying a dragon to the moon was a metaphor, until people started implying it wasn’t. There were also lots of small fantasy elements that didn’t seem to matter to the plot (e.g. one of Jebi’s friends is a gumiho, but this was referenced in a throw-away line and had no real consequences).
  • The big issue for me was pacing – not a lot happens in the first half of this book, but the plot ratchets up in the second half. However, by the end, there are lots of plot points left unresolved. That’s true of how most colonial conflicts happen in real life (battles vs wars and all the rest), but it was emotionally unsatisfying. This really felt like a book crying out for a sequel we don’t seem to be promised as of yet. I also would have liked to have spent more time fleshing out the relationships between Jebi and Vei (their love interest) and Bongasunga (their sister) as I wasn’t 100% emotionally invested in either.
  • The villains are mostly faceless, and I had no sense of their motivations beyond them being dedicated to the colonial cause. Again, this is true to real life in that most oppressors are just part of the system (and this book really hit home with how the system can dehumanise people slowly), but it made it harder to connect to Jebi’s story and the broader revolution narrative.

Overall, this is a book that made me think, and that has a lot of uncanny parallels to current events in many countries around the world, but it didn’t always click for me as a story. However, it’s exactly the kind of book I hope we see more of in the future.

Note: I received an ARC from Rebellion in exchange for a review. Phoenix Extravagant will be released on 13 October 2020.

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