It took me a little while to be convinced I needed to read this book. Not because I didn’t think it sounded good, just because I didn’t know much about it and hadn’t felt particularly compelled to find out. Then I read Jake’s review on Jake Is Reading and was immediately compelled by the premise of the magic system. Now I’m not one of those readers who finds magic systems particularly interesting; I’m one of those weird fantasy readers for whom the magic is actually the least interesting thing about any given fantasy book, but the magic of PHOENIX EXTRAVAGANT really interested me.
The story is based on the Japanese occupation of Korea and follows Gyen Jebi, an unemployed artist in the occupied nation of Hwaguk. Jebi isn’t a nationalist or a rebel, or a fighter of any description, they just want to paint. But after staking everything on a prestigious and expensive art exam to work in the Razani bureaucracy they instead find themself drafted into the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers. But there they hear tales of a massacre, a horrifying crime committed by the occupiers, and when they discover the source of the magical pigments used to power the automatons they find they can no longer remain neutral. What they can do though, is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight.
I’m gonna talk a little bit about the magic system, cos that was the most interesting thing about this book for me. Be aware the source of the magic could be considered spoiler territory for some people, but for me I probs wouldn’t have read this book if I hadn’t known beforehand, so I leave you to make your own decision. So in Phoenix Extravagant the pigments in the magical paint are powered by the destruction of art. And I think it would actually be kind of difficult to meaningfully talk about this book without knowing that, because this book is all about the imperialist destruction and appropriation of culture. Because of course the occupying forces consider their own art too valuable to sacrifice to this cause when there is an abundance of ‘inferior’ culture that can be sourced instead. It’s a constant theme throughout the book even outside of a magical context. There’s a particular scene that sticks on my mind, when Jebi is walking through what was once the old dynastic palace of Hwaguk. They try to imagine the halls as they might have looked during the reign of the last ruling dynasty of Hwaguk, the Azalea Throne, ‘but Razan’s living presence overwhelmed their attempts to repaint the halls in their head’. In the opening scene we also see Jebi sitting an art exam, where they go through an internal monologue about what is likely to get them noticed and employed; they realise they cannot paint in the style of their own culture, but must adopt the schools of art favoured by their imperialist rulers if they’re to have any chance of succeeding. Yoon Ha Lee describes the different artistic styles beautifully as well. I consider myself a bit of a philistine when it comes to paintings; I really have to have them explained to me cos I just don’t usually get it, but I was really drawn in to these scenes.
I wasn’t really sold on the rest of the book though, I gotta say. Like, it was ok, definitely not a bad book, just not my thing maybe. I was very cool on the romance. It’s there to add some tension into the story obviously, because Jebi begins to have feelings for one of their Razani masters. Fine in theory, but it felt shoe-horned in to me at times, especially some of the sexier bits. There’s one particularly eye roll-inducing moment when the characters are in absolute mortal peril, Jebi is being untied by Vei (the love interest) and Jebi finds themself thinking whether the whole being tied up thing is ‘something they could explore later, after they’d escaped the Summer Palace and its hideous secrets’. And I dunno, I just thought, you’re potentially about to die and you desperately need to escape; is that really what’s at the forefront of your mind right now? Maybe I’m just a prude and I’m projecting my own thoughts on to Jebi. After all, it might not be what I would think about in that moment, but I guess it very well could be what Jebi does. Either way, in the moment I was just like *eye roll*. There were some good bits about the romance aspect though. I thought the tension between Jebi’s attraction to Vei developed well, especially as Jebi becomes more actively conscious of the role Razan plays as an occupying power in their society and over their culture. It’s summed up well when they realise ‘it was one thing to be attracted to Vei, and another thing to ignore who and what she represented’.
Also, if there’s one thing that came a close second in capturing my attention about Phoenix Extravagant, it was the motherfucking mecha dragon! Arazi is a giant automaton dragon brought to life by the magical pigments in it’s painted mask. There are rumours of a massacre involving Arazi, but Jebi becomes suspicious when the pigments used to instil particular behaviours in different automatons don’t line up with Arazi’s supposed involvement in the massacre. So they hatch a plan to break Arazi out of the complex and then things inevitably go south. Honestly though, I just wasn’t that interested in the giant mecha dragon, which feels like a bit of a low bar to reach. I’ll be honest, this might just be very particular to me, because the method of communication Arazi and Jebi adopt gave me traumatic flashbacks to Clef and Sancia in Foundryside, and I hated their stupid banter so much haha, so it might just be association bias.
This was a decent read overall, definitely worth it for the interesting use of magic as a way to discuss the imperialist destruction of culture. Maybe I’m just not very widely read, but I don’t think that’s something I’ve seen explored in fantasy before. I found the ending a bit bizarre and not particularly in keeping with the feel of the rest of the book; for a while I actually thought Jebi was talking metaphorically about what they decide to do at the end, but nope, it’s totally literal. So that was a bit odd, but I think most of the other things were just a writing style that didn’t grab me personally, but may very well be someone else’s cup of tea. Good book 🙂
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