Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am a great fan of Yoon Ha Lee. The Machineries of Empire trilogy (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, and Revenant Gun) are three of my favorite SF books of the past several years. They are hard to get into (especially the first book, which dumps the reader into the middle of the action and the world without a shred of explanation), but the payoff is tremendous.
This is a very different sort of book. We are eased into this world more slowly, and the worldbuilding is measured and deliberate. It helps that the protagonist, Gyen Jebi, is something of an outsider to the world they are thrust into, so we learn about it along with them. The pacing is more restrained in this book, and the characters a tad better developed, I think (as much as I love the trilogy's Shuos Jedao and Kel Cheris). This secondary world is drawn from Korean mythology, although in some respects it seems a thinly disguised Earth. In fact, the worldbuilding is one of the few quibbles I have about this book, which I will get to.
Our protagonist, Gyen Jebi, is an artist, and the first chapter opens on them taking the examination for the Ministry of Art. They are in hopes they will win a state-sanctioned government artist job, working for the conquering Empire of Razan. Their homeland, Hwaguk, was taken over six years ago by the Razanei, who are well on their way to exploiting and erasing the native people. Indeed, the themes of colonialism, cultural appropriation, and empire loom large throughout this book, along with how one can become an unwitting collaborator in one's own occupation. In some respects, Jebi is on the road to doing just that. They try to shrink back from the fight, saying they are not political--until they learn exactly what is going on, and realize they have to take a stand.
Jebi fails the exam, which puts them in an ever tightening bind, as they borrowed a great deal of money to get a Razanei name certificate for the test. Money they now cannot pay back. Because of this, they are coerced into serving the Razanei empire in a underground lair, wherein lies the secret weapon the Razanei hope will defend the country against the threat of the ever-encroaching Westerners--Arazi, the sentient mecha dragon.
In this world, magic is created through artist-painted glyphs powered by magical ink. The glyphs are used to write magical grammar that give the various automata in the story their life and commands, and the grammar has to be individually thought out and exact. Too much leeway and/or imprecision in the commands, and the automata can make their own choices and ultimately rebel. The artist to have held Jebi's position previously was killed because she imbued Arazi with the incorrect grammar, and they are tasked with correcting this situation. But once they discover how the inks are produced--from the ashes of ancient, priceless Hwagugin artworks, ripped up and ground into magical pigments--they know they cannot continue to cooperate. They begin to make plans to escape, and take Arazi with them.
Jebi is a nice protagonist, neither a soldier nor a badass (one of the best moments in the book is when their lover comes to rescue them from capture, and Jebi charges out of their cell and falls flat on their face). They aren't passive--especially in the latter half of the book--but they recognize their limitations. There is a bit of unduly fast attraction in their relationship with their lover, the duelist prime (and their guard and watchdog) Dzuge Vei, but the relationship itself ends up depicted well, and Vei's character adequately fleshed out. Another well-thought-out character is Jebi's sister Bongsunga, who becomes a rebel after the death of her wife, and ends up leading the main rebel faction. And of course we have Arazi the mecha dragon, pictured on the cover, who develops a nice relationship with Jebi.
What quibbles I have with this book are with the worldbuilding. On its face, this is a fantasy world, but it also has elements of steampunk, particularly in the ubiquitous automata. There's an almost-World War I level of technology, as the Razanei have electricity, automobiles, tanks, and infantry. In my mind, this doesn't mesh very well with the magic and fox spirits (and especially the celestial court on the moon, where Arazi, Jebi and Vei flee at book's end). For me, the book would have been better if it had been straight fantasy. I think your enjoyment will depend on how you can reconcile these two conflicting elements. But the characters are well drawn, and these were mostly enough to carry the day. I'll certainly buy the sequel, if there is one.
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