Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.
This tagline from the synopsis really drew me into Phoenix Extravagant and I love how consistent this premise remains throughout the entire story.
Jebi is an unemployed artist who is looking for work and ends up being recruited by the Ministry of Armor. This is not the job that Jebi had hoped for themself, but they are unable to refuse. Within the Ministry of Armor, Jebi paints sigils onto the automatons to bring them to life. But as their work continues, Jebi starts to notice that something suspicious is happening. With the help of a charismatic dragon automaton, Jebi is thrown into the world of politics and rebellion despite their hesitation.
This was a really fun and interesting read for me. I had just finished reading a series of very dark and violent fantasy novels, so Phoenix Extravagant was a nice break from that. I loved Yoon Ha Lee’s take on colonialism and war through the perspective of an artist. Phoenix Extravagant seems to pull from the Japanese occupation of Korea. I really enjoyed this take on an “asian-inspired” fantasy. It was a unique and engaging perspective. A lot of asian-inspired fantasy as written by white folks draws on stereotypes, particular periods (so much Japanese feudalism), or vague handwaving, so it was great to read an asian-inspired fantasy novel written by a Korean-American.
I really liked Jebi as a character. I loved how they were unaware or had very basic knowledge of a lot of political happenings. It felt realistic within the frame of the character. Jebi is an ordinary person. Jebi is extremely focused on their art, so when they fall into a situation that puts them in the middle of a lot of politicking, they are completely out of their depth.It was refreshing to follow a character who didn’t know exactly what was going on or why. Sometimes protagonists are too competent in too many different areas.
I loved how Jebi didn’t always make the best choice, how sometimes their stubbornness was misplaced, and how sometimes they were irrationally paranoid. All these factors contributed to making Jebi feel like an ordinary, if eccentric, person. Jebi is also a very empathetic character, so I really loved how they became involved in the world of politics and rebellion by connecting emotionally with the automaton dragon Arazi.
And of course, one of my favourite parts was that the book is set in a very queer friendly world. There were queer marriages, non-binary folks, and polyamory. And I loved how certain things like haircuts were codified to show that a character likely had a certain identity. It reflected my experience in the lgbtq+ community. When Jebi gives another non-binary character the little nod of acknowledgement I pointed at the line and exclaimed to my wife “look! It’s the gay nod!”
Overall, I really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant. Yes, there were some aspects I didn’t love and the ending left me torn, but it was still a really enjoyable read with interesting world building and a driving plot.