Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

October 15, 2020

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…

This week’s review is the new fantasy novel Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee.

In many respects the novel’s main protagonist, Gyen Jebi, is an innocent. They are so caught up in their desire to create, they are oblivious to the political upheaval going on all around them. Circumstance leads Jebi to find a new job in a government ministry. They meet a strange woman called Dzuge Vei. The intense relationship that develops between them changes them both at a fundamental level.

Politics plays an important part in the novel’s narrative. The story chronicles events unfolding in a country under occupation. The Razanei forces are keen to subjugate the Hwagugin population wherever they can. The authorities are driven to destroy native culture and Jebi, at least initially, is almost accepting of that. As long as they can still create their own art Jebi is willing to remain blissfully ignorant of anything else. Its only when Jebi is directly affected by Razanei’s plans that they realise the desperate need for change.

While reading Phoenix Extravagant I was reminded of books like 1984, and movies like Brazil. I’ll admit I am mildly obsessed about the idea that a single person can rage against the political machine. It fills me with a sense of hope that I find comforting; that idea that everyone has a breaking point where they change from being a follower to a leader. The moment when Jebi is forced to confront their own failings and prejudices is transformative. They have to commit to having an opinion about societal issues, their ignorance can no longer be considered a valid excuse. I’ll be honest, this has led to a certain amount of introspection on my part. How would I fair, forced into a similar situation? I love it when books challenge me to engage the old grey matter and really think about their subject matter. Yoon Ha Lee gives us lots of themes to unpack and explore. Politics, identity, the place of art in society are all examined.

I’m a firm believer that books arrive exactly when they are supposed to. Currently in the United Kingdom, it feels like there is a war brewing against culture and the arts. Government ministers have gone as far as making the horrific suggestion that those working in creative industries should consider learning a new vocation in order to be more productive in society. Phoenix Extravagant shows us how that attitude is inherently wrong. Art is valuable work, it is a genuine expression of our emotions. Art is the reason why many of us are able to survive the daily grind. We are moved by music, touched by the emotion displayed on a canvas, captivated by images on a screen. I get up in the morning knowing there is writing out there for me to devour and it makes me endlessly happy. I don’t live to work, I work to live. Artistic endeavour does nothing but enhance that life.

Art is how we decorate space, and music is how we decorate time. – Jean-Michel Basquiat

I don’t often mention cover design in reviews, but I would be remiss not to touch upon it briefly in this case. Especially when the subject matter of the book is so intrinsically linked with art. Kudos is due to Dominic Forbes and Ronan Le Fur for their work. The design is visually striking. It’s what drew me to the novel in the first place. As soon I saw the cover image, I was keen to know more. For those amongst who have an interest in such things I stumbled upon a fascinating article on the publisher’s website where they discuss the process creating the cover in a bit more depth.

I’ve realised that I’ve nearly reached the end of my review and I’ve not even mentioned the fact there is a mechanical dragon in the novel. How could I have forgotten that? Arazi is the cherry atop the icing of this literary cake. I’ll say no more, I’ll let you discover this character yourself. There is a whole thread of the narrative dealing with the magical elements that Jebi works with. The whole premise of using differing pigments of ink to imbue automatons, like Arazi, with various abilities is a brilliant idea.

There is a thoughtful quality to the writing in Phoenix Extravagant that I really enjoyed. Jebi’s complicated feelings towards Vei are a good example. The conflicting tumult of emotions is perfectly captured. Jebi becomes the focus of profound events and we get the opportunity to watch as they navigate the fallout of their own actions. The author has clearly spent time crafting his characters, understanding their interactions and placing all this within the confines of a well-defined world. If you are looking for a fantasy novel that delves into the intricacies of human relationships and how our actions can come to define us, you need look no further. I can guarantee you are going to love this.

Phoenix Extravagant is published by Solaris and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to video game Abzu by Austin Wintory. The tracks on the album provide a contemplative atmosphere that dovetails nicely with the writing.



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