A copy of this book was very kindly provided me by the publisher. I can’t promise that this didn’t influence my feelings about it, but a book is a book is a book, however I acquire it, and I can promise that all opinions are my own.
I wanted so much more from this book.
The world in which the story is set was one of the first things I wanted more of. The country of Hwaguk, now known as Administrative Territory Fourteen and undergoing colonization from the Razanei empire, is a place of contradictions and dualities. Most people now speak both the native language and the colonizers’ language; traditional clothing is thrown over in favour of the Razanei’s ‘modern’ style; and there is a Registry of Names for Hwagugin people to take on a Razanei name, making it easier for them to then apply for Razanei jobs. But to do these things makes you a collaborator – working with the invading party to rewrite Hwaguk’s culture.
Lee beautifully captures the nuances of life in this conflicted society, particularly via Jebi and their relationship with their sister Bongsunga. I found it easy to empathise with Jebi, so passionate about art that they feel politics don’t matter … until they do. Happy to jump through whichever hoops the Razan Empire deems necessary in order to get work as an artist, and only noticing too late that the joke is on them.
But I wanted more here too. It feels odd to admit to wanting a story to take more time to get where it’s going, but that is what I wanted. Jebi’s journey was fascinating, but some things happened too quickly for me to feel the emotional weight. I needed more time to get to know Bongsunga, and Jebi’s friend Hak – heck, I want another entire book on gumiho (shape-shifting fox spirits FTW!) – and Vei and her family.
And then there was the automata. The usual person-shaped automata that the Razan Empire uses as an unbribable police force were definitely something I wanted to hear more about, (did anyone else get Bone Shard Daughter vibes here? No? Just me?), but Arazei the experimental war machine was just too awesome, and I wanted to know everything about that. Arazei is utterly charming and impossible not to love, with its questions and observations. And while this wasn’t a story focused on Arazei’s sentience, I appreciated that having been gifted with choice, Arazei was capable of more than a basic automaton.
Oh, but then I wanted so much more about the magical pigments used to programme the automata. Some of the pigment names were wonderful: Moonlit Footsteps, Lion’s Breath, Crane in Winter, Eyes of Hawk, and, of course, Phoenix Extravagant. The source of the pigments was less wonderful, even if a very physical manifestation of the Razan Empire’s effect on Hwaguk. But I’d have welcomed a deeper exploration of this sort of magic, the why and how of it, and how it came to be.
Call me greedy, but reading this was like being given tantalising glimpses of my favourite foods and then having them snatched away before I could do more than inhale the aromas. It was a frustrating experience. I’d have preferred a slightly slower pace, particularly in the second half, and more time to get a feel for the place and the people. What was there was great, but, like Oliver Twist before me, I wanted more.
[A final note: I’ve mentioned being in a bit of a bloggy rut again recently, and this post is part of my attempt to power through it, back to my usual levels of enthusiasm, instead of moping about. As a result, this feels like possibly the scrattiest post I’ve ever written. I promise if I could do better I would’ve done. Hang in there … normal service will resume shortly. I hope.]