Book Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Phoenix Extravagant

Author: Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher: Solaris

Publication Date: Oct. 15 2020

Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction

Shelves: Female-authored, non-binary

More than just a beautiful story of a nonbinary protagonist and their mechanical dragon, Phoenix Extravagant is a powerful tale of art, identity, imperialism, and family. Yoon Ha Lee deftly juxtaposes the beauty of words with the starkness of plot, the hard edges of their characters with the soft edges of their monster, creating a reading experience that’s as unique as the story being read.

Jebi is an artist and a sibling, inspired by the need to create, but increasingly driven by the need to share the financial burden of family. They resent the Razanei invaders and lament the loss of their people’s culture, but they’re no revolutionary. Even after getting trapped in a job with the Ministry of Armor, it’s not a sudden desire to overthrow the invaders that consumes them, but a horror at seeing the corruption and consumption of Hwagugin art to create weapons.

It takes a while before the mechanical dragon becomes a character, but Jebi and Arazi make an interesting pair. One has chosen nonbinary as a natural choice, and one has had nonbinary thrust upon them by artificial design. Neither wishes to play a role in games of war and rebellion, even though one was created as a weapon and the other groomed to enable such weapons. One is fighting to remain true to family, the other is longing to be part of a family. It’s a bold act of treason on Jebi’s part that allows Arazi to communicate, to express its thoughts, feelings, and desires, but it’s an even bolder act of treason from another person trapped between cultures and worlds that allows for the pivotal escape.

For a story that’s defined by empire, invasion, conquest, and rebellion, Phoenix Extravagant isn’t necessarily about any of them. It’s about people and cultures . . . about identity, choices, and love . . . explored against that backdrop of rebellion. Interestingly, it’s often hard to see good and evil here, despite the overthrow of a people and a consumption of a culture. There are a lot of moral grey areas, a lot of questions about intent, and whether the looming threat of Western invasion is genuine or just a political ploy, there’s no escaping the significance of that fear.

There’s a wonderful point where, in working so hard to free Arazi, Jebi realizes their own people will want to use it as a weapon against the Razanei – or perhaps against the West – and they cannot stop that, but at least they can ensure it has a choice. That moment sums up so much of the story, and in light of the rather surprising ending, the consequences of that choice weigh even more heavily upon the final pages.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ 1/2

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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