Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee is a lyrical Fantasy on the power of artistic resistance and kinship. I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
|Series: Standalone||Genre: Fantasy|
|Date of Publishing: October 20, 2020||Publisher: Solaris / Rebellion Publishing|
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…
“My father told me once, when I was young, that no one wins a war except the crows.“
The first thing I want to highlight before I really start gushing about this book is that this was the first Yoon Ha Lee book I’ve ever read.
That’s right, I’m the idiot who hasn’t gotten to his The Machineries of Empire trilogy yet, for which I’m constantly berating myself. But you better believe that after this book, it’s what I’ll be latching my reader’s eyes onto next.
Yoon Ha Lee’s latest release, Phoenix Extravagant, takes us through an inspiringly imaginative journey about devotion, connection, and the power of art as resistance. Part fantasy, part literary fiction, this book will prove irresistible to all readers prizing a story brimming with cultural significance, vivid artistic imagery, and the limitless capability of art for reclaiming one’s identity.
I was already pretty excited to read this book, as I talked about in my 1st post for the Asylum (yay for sneaking in some self-promo!).
The thing with expectations (or at least my expectations) is that more often than not they tend to disappoint me. Nihilistic viewpoints aside, the truth is, every once in a while, and perhaps more often than I’m likely to admit, something comes along that says hey, you were totally right for once, go eat a cookie to celebrate your miserable life. And let me tell you, it feels amazing to be right.
To me, Phoenix Extravagant was one of those moments of clarity.
Drawing a fantasy world analogous to the Japanese occupation of Korea before and during World War II, the book centers the effects of colonialism and imperialism in the desolation of culture, by speaking of the losses war spreads beyond its battlefields and by making Gyen Jebi, a non-binary artist, its main character.
The Empire of Razan has annexed Hwuaguk as an administrative territory, bringing it under colonial rule. They seek the rich resources of its mines, to be used in the war against the Westerners. Hwaguk is forced to bleed its culture dry for the machinations of warmongering political powers, which demand Hwaguk’s metal and its very heritage for its armies.
Gyen Jebi unwittingly joins the Empire’s ranks when they start to work as a painter for the Ministry of Armor. Their unique artistic skills might have won them the position, but there are secrets hiding beneath the Ministry’s vigilant demeanor, and war is hardly ever as simple as bloodshed.
“War was beautiful at a distance, when one read about it in the sagas and histories, or illustrated it with an eye to the prettiest vantages or formations.“
Don’t come into it expecting a battlefield war-torn story filled with action-packed scenes, because that’s not what this book is about. Phoenix Extravagant deals with other deep repercussions of war, its effects on civilian life, and how it can tear culture and history apart.
And let me tell you, it fucking works. It highlights another kind of revolution, one every artist will relate to, and it’s equally exciting and entertaining. Its eloquent fantasy directioned towards emotion and revolution.
Gyen Jebi isn’t an ordinary type of fighter either. Their every decision deals with the ambiguity of art, its expression, and the care one takes to create messages and significance. In a way, it’s an ode to writing itself, which supremely made this book special to me.
Jebi’s rebellion comes directly from their acts of creation. It’s in their interaction with art itself, represented by their relationship with Arazi. Their defiance is blatant and serene, yet assertive. Their dissent isn’t inherent and evident from the beginning, instead, it grows steadily over time as they’re forced to confront their reality and that of their country.
Much like their art, it’s a patiently intimate reclaiming of power. In the harshest moments, Jebi prevails and the serenity of their creations can commit cataclysmic feats. In times like the present, a book such as this feels especially meaningful.
“Not for the first time, they became aware of art as fragile. Burn it down or tear it up, and no one would ever know that it had existed or what it had looked like, except perhaps in some critic’s passing diatribe or scholar’s pamphlet.“
Taking the risk of reading too much into things (as we all surely do), Jebi’s non-binary identity seems to add to this message of art as a process of reclaiming freedom, especially when connected to the repressive system at play. I loved that this part of Jebi’s identity, though extremely significant to me, was not an exclusionary one.
In Phoenix Extravagant, the geu-ae, like Jebi, are people who “choose to live not as men nor women, or sometimes dress and speak as one or other, and are left alone”. Allowing for identity to be explored outside itself as it adds substance to a story was something I talked about in the post I mentioned above, and I absolutely loved that that’s exactly what this book gave me.
More than that, it’s amazingly clever how the author wove the gravity of the creation of art into every moment of the story.
Using the destruction of art as a literal weaponization, Lee highlights not only its incredible power but all these terrible influences and erasures born of appropriation, Western and Razanei, which become most evident in this forced erasure of culture through the destruction of its artistic heritage.
Artistic expression always takes center-stage, highlighting its importance in the construction of society and culture, and how it can be appropriated for either resistance to occupation or its promotion.
With rich vocabulary, writing as fascinating as skillful brushstrokes, and a slow-burn story filled with longing and chilling moments of divisiveness, Phoenix Extravagant will claim a spot on the shelf of anyone looking for a remarkable read within any genre.