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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Official Author Website
Order Phoenix Extravagant over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)



AUTHOR INFORMATIONYoon Ha Lee is an American science fiction and fantasy writer, known for his Machineries of Empire space opera novels and his short fiction. His first novel, Ninefox Gambit, received the 2017 Locus Award for Best First Novel.

FORMAT/INFO: Phoenix Extravagant is out in hardback on the 9 June 2020 (US) and 11 June 2020 (UK), and will follow in paperback in 2021. 

OVERVIEW: Just look at his cover - magnificent, isn’t? Dragons are cool, but automatic dragons are something else. 

Phoenix Extravagant, set in a fantasy version of Korea during the Japanese occupation, revolves around politics, war, and rebellion. Instead of showing the conflict through the eyes of devious politicians or fighters, it follows Gyen Jebi, a non-binary painter destined (or rather maneuvered) to shift the scales of the conflict. A delightful change from the smash and bang seen often in occupation narratives. Gyen wants to paint, and they care little about politics or war. 

The Empire of Razan conquered Hwaguk and transformed it into Administrative Territory Fourteen. Gyen’s sister, Bongsunga, has revolutionary ties. She feels betrayed when her sibling registers for Razanei name, hoping it’ll allow them to secure a job. Jebi accepts an offer from the Razan government’s defense sector. His job involves reducing classic Hwagugin artworks to magical pigments necessary to program the behaviors of automata used to control the populace. A neat magical system. Without getting into details, Gyen ends up teaming up with a mecha dragon against the government. 

The world, while inspired by history, is extravagant, atmospheric, and mysterious. The book tackles the theme of colonialism and various forms of response from colonized nations (resistance, acceptation, partial assimilation). As mentioned before, politics happen in the background but influence Jebi’s life to the point where they can’t remain impartial. The choices they face and erratic actions they make pulled me through the novel. 

While they unravel the mysteries surrounding recent massacre, they grow involved with the lives of a sizable cast of characters, including Arazi - a sentient mecha dragon. Gyen’s actions are never thought-out. They react on impulse and often finish in even bigger troubles. 

Lee does a fine job breathing life into each of the protagonists, imbuing them with hidden depths that slowly reveal over the course of the book. That said, Gyen’s relationship with Vei felt slightly forced. I didn’t feel any chemistry between them. In contrast, Gyen and Arazi banter made me regularly smile. 

Even though I liked the book, it has a few downsides. First, it’s somewhat predictable. Second, the climax of the book moves at jet speed but it doesn’t resolve all conflicts, and I would expect a stronger closure from a book marketed as a standalone. 

Despite its stumbles, Phoenix Extravagant was well worth the time spent reading it. It’s fun and entertaining. I wouldn’t mind seeing more entries in this well-crafted world. The open (sort of) ending gives hope Arazi will return. Fingers crossed.

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