Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

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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.]

 

10 thoughts on “Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

  1. I was a bit underwhelmed by this book too. It was fine but I never felt like I was able to sink into it. I think you’re possibly right about the length; some stories work as novellas, or their authors make them work as novellas because that’s a skill they have (looking at you Mr Phenderson Djélì Clark) but Phoenix Extravagant never felt the format worked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your review. I’m glad I’m not the only one to have been a bit disappointed.
      I still really want to give Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy a go and am hoping that that will be as good as I’ve heard. Having more space for his story in the trilogy might make all the difference.

      Like

      1. I follow people whose writing I like, whether it’s tags or reviews or indepth posts. My main thing is that the people I follow must be active and by active I use the once a month rule. Announced hiatus’s get around that, but simply disappearing for a month usually means I unfollow the person.

        So the type of post doesn’t mean as much to me as the fact that there ARE posts. If that all makes sense….

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been meaning to read this but you aren’t the only one who’s had some issues with it, so I keep putting it off. And I’m in a blog rut too, I’ve lost a lot of my enthusiasm for blogging and it makes it so hard to keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no Tammy! I’m so sorry to hear that!
      I don’t know how it is for you, but I feel genuinely excited about all the books out there I’ve yet to read, but can’t bring myself to sit and write about what I’ve just read. I don’t know what’s going on!

      Like

  3. Have you read his Machineries of the Empire trilogy? The first book, Ninefox Gambit, is amazing 😀
    Don’t push yourself too hard with blogging – the blog is for you, not the other way round 😉 It’s supposed to be fun, not another duty 😉 We’ll be here for you 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I haven’t read his trilogy yet, and I really want to because it sounds awesome. Reading Phoenix hasn’t put me off – I can see a lot of good things even if it ultimately disappointed me a little. 😃
      And Ola, thank you. That means a lot. ❤ I just want to get back to finding this bloggy thing a lot of fun … it’ll happen. In the meantime, there might just be more tags than book talk! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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