Book review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher: Solaris

Publication date: 20 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy | Steampunk

Page extent: 416 pages

Rating:

Synopsis: Dragons. Art. Revolution.

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…

This was my first foray into Yoon Ha Lee’s work and all I can say is I can’t wait to explore more of his work because I really loved this! It is so very different to much of the other fantasy I’ve read, but because of that it felt so refreshing and new. And the nonbinary/female enemies to lovers relationship at the core of this story SPARKED SO MUCH JOY OMG I LOVE TO SEE IT.

Phoenix Extravagant is not your usual fantasy. We don’t follow a hero: instead, we follow an artist, slightly naive, oblivious to the world outside their art, and really just wanting to get on with their life outside of war. This passivity isn’t usually something you see in fantasy, particularly in a fantasy book about colonisation and rebellion. The book follows this artist, Gyen Jebi, as they are hired by the ruling Razanei Ministry of Armour to paint sigils that power their army of automaton. But after they discover how the paint is created, they feel forced to act, by stealing the Ministry of Armour’s automaton dragon of course!

This is a book full of very contrasting elements, and it made for a very unusual read, but one that felt so new and unique, fun and fresh. We see the book from the perspective of someone who doesn’t want to get involved in a rebellion, who doesn’t want to fight or kill and kind of just wants to get on with their life, so they get a job with the enemy to pay their bills. This is contrasted with the exploration of identity, colonisation and war, bringing us the unusual story of someone from the conquered class who doesn’t want to fight back themselves to get their country back. We see in Jebi the way the conquering nation are able to assimilate, manipulating the Hwaguk into giving up their names and their culture. The horrific nature of the magic system really exemplifies this, using cultural erasure to create the very weapon used to enforce the rule over Hwaguk is just horrific on so many different levels. So instead of in the main character, it is in Jebi’s sister, Bongsunga, that we see the rebel fighter who is willing to die to her country back. This makes for a very interesting and complex sibling relationship at the heart of this book, one that involves betrayal on both sides.

Alongside Jebi, we have another pacifist at the centre of this novel, who is of course Arazi the automaton dragon. Arazi, a war machine built by the Razan to destroy their enemies, who wants nothing to do with it. Arazi is such a sweet dragon for a creature created for such monstrosities and I adored the emphasis put on his consent and choice, and Jebi’s efforts to allow the dragon choice and free will as much as possible.

I really loved the juxtaposition of the steampunky, scifi nature of this fantasy alongside this more mystical, fairytale sense of freedom in the story. The contrast of this automaton dragon, and the mystical way he can fly; this felt most especially freeing in the way this book ended. I won’t say anything for spoilers, but I loved that we ended on a more fairytale-esque note than other elements of the book would suggest.

I want to end with talking about the relationship between Jebi and the prime duelist, Vei, because I just loved it. I think I must’ve been smiling like a fool the whole way through at seeing such a brilliant nb/f relationship at the heart of a fantasy book, it just made me so full of joy!! These two start with a mainly physical relationship but then grow to trust each other and suddenly the fire with which they fight for the other, the lack of control when the other is in danger, I just love to see it. Lee writes with such a simple style of writing I feel, it’s not full of huge detailed paragraphs about worldbuilding, about magic, about politics, or about the relationship. And this more simple style of writing somehow felt more powerful than if we’d had pages and pages of relationship development. Instead, the simplest sentences held the most power. It makes you pay attention to actions and what’s actually happening to see what is most important, and this felt particularly well done when showing off the relationship between Jebi and Vei.

I really loved this book. It looks at colonisation and war from a very different perspective than you usually see in fantasy. Instead of following a hero, we follow one of the bystanders impacted by war. It felt so fresh and unique and it really emphasised some of the mechanisms colonisers use to control those they conquer.

30 Days of Pride: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Title: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Publication date: 26 February 2019

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 848 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

I still can’t quite believe I managed to finish Priory! This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year, with me promising every month that this will be the month. Well I finally did it! And this book was just as huge and epic as everyone promised it was. It’s a fantasy that feels pretty much entirely the opposite of male gaze fantasies like Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Priory is a sprawling, majestic fantasy of such scale and imagination I don’t think my review is ever going to live up to it!

Priory is told through four main voices, and I’m going to attempt to describe the hugely complex and massive scope of this book through these four characters. We have:

Ead

In the West of the Kingdom is the land of Inys. Ead is a Lady of the Privy Chamber to Queen Sabran of Inys. She’s a secret mage and secret protector of Sabran. Sabran has had several cutthroats sent to kill her, and Ead is trying to hunt down the mastermind behind the cutthroats. She also wants to further her standing in Queen Sabran’s court, having been sent from a secret society to keep her alive.

Ead and Sabran were probably my favourite characters, although Sabran doesn’t have a POV. I just really loved the way their relationship developed and how Ead’s journey changed so dramatically thanks to Sabran. Also Ead is just so badass with both her magic and her swords and her bow and just everything, I love her!!

Tané

Far to the East is Tané. Tané is a young woman training to be a Dragon rider in the Eastern kingdom of Seikii, long enemies of Inys who despise their dragon worshipping. She has just helped an outsider into her town, against laws barring outsiders from the nation thanks to the red sickness, because she feared it would halt the trials of her class to become the first dragonriders in 50 years.

I really enjoyed Tané’s POV. She has such a fun and action heavy journey, full of dragon battles. She spends the book beating herself up over the mistake she made in the first few chapters, and wants nothing more than to be punished for her error. Instead, she becomes central to the fight against the Nameless One. As usual, I adored her dragon Nayimathun, I always love sentient creatures in fantasy, and these dragons were no different! I loved exploring the differences between the Western dragons and the Eastern dragons and how these influenced the religion of each nation.

Niclays

Niclays is a man who was banished from the West after insulting Queen Sabran. He has spent 7 years in Orisma, a small island in Seikii. Orisma is the only place where outsiders are allowed in Seikii, and they can never leave. Niclays is an alchemist, and is trying to create the elixir of life. His journey to create this, leads him to Tané and her dragon, past pirates and into the centre of the war against the Nameless One.

Niclays was such a terrible person. He kind of represented to me all other traditional male fantasy: the least interesting character, kind of awful and yet still somehow manages to win at everything despite how much you hate him and don’t want him to. And I have full faith that Shannon intended him to represent that because it’s honestly ridiculous how much he survives despite his complete ineptitude. He’s so full of anger and vindictiveness at his circumstances, taking no responsibility for his own actions which led to his exile.

Loth

And finally we have Lord Arteloth Beck, best friend to Queen Sabran. He has just been exiled to Yscalin, a nation who gave up the Virtudom religion of Inys to pray to the Nameless One, a dangerous dragon thought to be kept away by continuation of Sabran’s line. He was exiled by one of Sabran’s advisors due to his closeness to Sabran and the fear it was keeping her from marrying.

Loth is sweet and lighthearted and full of goodness (perhaps too full as it makes him unable to recognise who’s an enemy and who isn’t, always thinking the good of people). His journey is really the one that ties everyone’s stories together, though it doesn’t seem like it at the start.

These four very different paths and stories weave their way across a huge world. When I started, it was difficult to see how everything would come together – this world is so large I couldn’t imagine these four stories passing even vaguely close to each other. And yet, they do! These four provide the structure to this huge book, and despite my initial disbelief, Shannon manages to weave an intricate and detailed tale which takes these four all across the world, their paths crossing and crisscrossing over each other, as the book introduces the Nameless One and the fight of all worlds to destroy him.

The scope and scale of Priory reminds me of what George RR Martin did in 7 books. Except Samantha Shannon managed it in just one, without any rape, and with a so throughly female gaze that you are constantly confronted about your own biases. I had thought I was pretty good at not assuming things in fantasy, given that I pretty much only read diverse fantasy. But yet, I found myself constantly shocked and surprised when characters turned out to be women!! I was horrified at myself. I love how Shannon takes hold of all your unconscious biases and just throws them out the window. The world Shannon imagines is one without the gender, sexual and racial prejudices and trauma so familiar in so many other of the “big” fantasies. It is full of different nations and religions, creatures, magic, history and politics that Shannon has clearly invested so much time and research in, to create an entirely new world free of these biases, that feels so incredibly real.

A particular highlight in the worldbuilding was the religions. I always love books that heavily explore fantasy religion, because they’re always so unique in every single book, and this was no exception. I particularly loved the way Ead’s history and faith connected with Sabran’s faith. I’m not going to say much to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say, the way these two religions connect and contrast each other is so great! I also really loved the way Sabran’s religion, and the religion her entire nation is founded on, is so embedded in who she is as it’s related to her bloodline. Journeys questioning faith are always very interesting, and Sabran’s journey in this is particularly interesting given her faith is so embedded in who she is as a person, given she is the descendant of the individual who started her religion.

I really loved this book! It is just as huge and expansive a world as you would imagine from a book of this size, but it takes traditional fantasy and completely twists it on its head to create a world where the female gaze is central and with such remarkable worldbuilding, I’m just in awe of its creation. Highly recommend!