Book Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

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Genre : Fantasy, Steampunk

Publisher : Solaris

Length : 416 pages

Format : eARC

Rating : 4 stars

Publication Date : October 20th 2020 

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION

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… 

BOOK REVIEW

Hwaguk has been occupied for years after losing the war against the powerful Empire of Razan. Now, it is just another province of the empire.

Gyen Jebi, a non-binary Hwagugin artist, is a pacifist and they have no intention of fighting for or against the Razanei, they just want to paint in peace. However, life as an artist isn’t always easy and, when their application to work for the Ministry of Art is rejected, Jebi find themselves in dire need of money. When they are offered a position as an artist for the Ministry of Armor, they are unable to pass up the opportunity.

Jebi soon realizes that the Razanei need them to create automatons that will have the power to destroy all the enemies of the Empire – including Hwagugin rebels such as Jebi’s own sister, Bonsunga. Jebi the pacifist is now forced to make a choice. Will they continue painting for the enemy or will they fight for their country?

When I first heard about Phoenix Extravagant, a fantasy book inspired by the Japanese occupation of Korea, I was definitely excited to read it. Firstly, because I want to read everything Yoon Ha Lee has and will ever write and secondly, because I really love Korean culture and I was immediately intrigued by the setting.

And the setting was one of the reasons I really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant. I have a fondness for saeguk, historical Korean dramas, and the Japanese occupation setting reminded of one of my favorites Mister Sunshine, a drama following Korean rebels fighting against the Japanese Empire, but with dragons.

I loved all the references to Korean culture (especially Korean food!) and history but I also loved all the elements that Yoon Ha Lee incorporated to it. First of all, this book is queer AF. In this world, you can identify as female, male or non-binary (geu-ae) and it’s not frowned upon by anyone. The same goes for relationships: poly-amorous relationships, same-sex relationships and relationships between non-binary people are completely normalized.

I also loved reading about the automatons, mechanical beings brought to life by elaborate paintings made with special pigments. Those pigments are created from the destruction of art pieces (and of course, the Razanei destroy Hwagugin art and not their own). Each pigment has a specific effect on the automation depending on its processing and the art piece that was destroyed to create it. One of the pigments, Phoenix Extravagant, is extremely rare and allowed the Razanei to create a particularly complex and powerful automaton in the form of a mechanical dragon. However, they didn’t expect their creation to be a pacifist sentient being and they need Jebi to modify the dragon to make it a more useful weapon.  

To be perfectly honest, I probably would have enjoyed the story more if it had been narrated from the perspective of Arazi, the dragon. Indeed, I struggled a bit with Jebi. I understood that the book was purposefully following an ordinary character who doesn’t want to fight but, I ended up being quite frustrated with how passive Jebi was. It got on my nerves and because of that, I struggled to connect with them or their relationships with their sister or their romantic interest.  

My other issue with the book was that, while the worldbuilding and the setting were amazing, I thought the story was a bit too simple and straightforward. It’s not that surprising considering that the book is a standalone and only 400 pages but, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a bit longer and if it had followed other characters such as Arazi, Bonsunga and Vei.

However, even if I had some minor issues with Phoenix Extravagant, I still had a lot of fun reading it. If you are looking for a queer fantasy book with a fascinating setting and worldbuilding, I would definitely recommend it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Rebellion Publishing and Netgalley. All thoughts are my own.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

  1. For a Korean lover this must be a dream walk. But I liked the setting as exotic, and just wonder why it must be on a different world than ours (aside from adding dragons and magic). Because all references where so obviously to real world history and culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Phoenix Extravagant is a standalone and it is very different to Ninefox Gambit: it’s way more approachable but at the same time, the Machineries of Empire trilogy is such a masterpiece that cannot not recommend it! The first few chapters are very confusing and it takes a bit of time to understand the world but, once you do, it turns into an incredible ride! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very different from Yoon Ha Lee’s other works and I think I might have been disappointed if I had expected this book to be similar to Ninefox Gambit. I’m glad I knew it was completely different before starting it, it’s a very fun fantasy story with an amazing setting but it’s not (and doesn’t try to be) as amazing as his science fiction trilogy! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t wait to read this. I was interested before but the ‘magic system’ you mention here sounds incredibly interesting. Having the automatons powered by the destruction of the occupied people’s culture by the occupier is an incredible way to tell a story about war.

    Liked by 2 people

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