Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?
Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.
The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?
And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!
And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.
About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.
Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.
Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.
My rating: ★★★★½
CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury