Title: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Publication date: 20 October 2020
Genre: Adult | Fantasy | Steampunk
Page extent: 416 pages
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.