“…if wishes were wings, all the world would fly.”
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee is an own-voices Korean, own-voices LGBTQIA+ adult science-fiction novel following a person named Gyen Jebi who has a passion for painting. When they find themselves jobless and desperate, they are recruited by the Ministry of Armour to paint mystical symbols that animate the occupying government’s soldiers. But when Jebi learns of the government’s horrifying crimes, they know that they can no longer stay out of the politics. Instead, they become determined to steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton in order to stand up and fight.
Phoenix Extravagant is an exceptional piece of science-fiction that is beautifully complex yet approachable and fascinatingly original. It is one of the best novels released within the genre in all of 2020.
As a fellow nonbinary person, the representation provided via Gyen Jebi was absolutely amazing, along with the representations of other Queer identities and relationships. It is such a natural part of the social structure and environment that it evoked a strong sense of emotional reactions from me, mostly of deep gratitude and respect. Being able to read about characters with the same gender identity as myself partaking in such a fierce element of social justice was positively breath-taking.
The setting is a fantasy-steeped Korea, known as Hwaguk, which is under the strict occupation of what can be construed as the Japanese Empire, or Razanei. The descriptions of being oppressed and forced to forsake one’s entire cultural identity for that of the same people who violently usurped one’s homeland is vicious and incredibly multi-layered. This is further enhanced by the rift between those individuals who seek to make peace with their new realities and the people who continue to fight for their freedom. The depiction of the political situation being a literal manner of survival is brilliantly depicted via the diverging populaces and the political ramifications that impact them.
I found the commentary and tension of the world-building to be especially relevant to today’s socio-political upheaval, making it feel far more personal and intimate than I could have imagined. Combined with the fantastically sophisticated and inventive writing style, the reader is pulled into an immersive and suspense-fuelled ride of dexterous characters and the highly daedal perspectives of war and how it is not as black and white as it appears to be on the surface.
My favourite creative elements in Phoenix Extravagant were the dragon and the magic system. It was such a beautifully unique experience to see how independent the automaton dragon was. It was entertaining yet enlightening and even a bit cerebral. Combining that with painting being used as a grammar for the magic system, Phoenix Extravagant brilliantly implements fantasy-laced, steampunk-style aesthetics into the atmosphere that one cannot help but be astounded by.
If there is anything that I could complain about, it is only that I wish it were slightly longer in terms of historical context. The political foundation for the narrative is so thought-provoking and interesting to me that I would adore a secondary book that goes into more details. I would consume it ravenously.
All in all, Phoenix Extravagant is a superb work of genre fiction that I highly recommend to readers that enjoy a combination of steampunk sci-fi and inventive fantasy elements set against a Korean socio-cultural backdrop. Bibliophiles that like intelligently written adult fiction shall also find a lot to adore here.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Solaris.
Publication Date: October 2020
Genre: Korean Literature, Science-Fiction
Page Count: 416 pages
Content Warning(s): Interrogation torture (on page). Attempted violence against a cat. Mass Death. Bombing. Intense representation of oppression and forced assimilation.
GoodReads: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee