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…
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Anyone who’s read my blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s work. From the Machineries of the Empire trilogy to his short story collections, I’ve read and loved them all. As such, when I saw word that a new book was being written, I knew I had to get my hands on it as soon as possible. Ironically, I was telling myself I wouldn’t request any more titles until I cleared my backlog, but I just couldn’t resist. And I was certainly not let down. A huge thanks to Rebellion/Solaris for approving this title on NetGalley for me, despite requesting it so late in the review cycle.
From the first chapter, it’s clear that this world is heavily inspired by the Japanese (the Razanei) occupation of Korea (the Hwaguk) in the 20th century. A major theme in this book is colonialism. Namely, this book hits two major points, the first being the response of the colonized people. Through different characters, Lee shows responses ranging from open resistance (Bongsunga), reluctant integration (Jebi), to open assimilation (Hak). Pheonix Extravagent also explores the behavior of the colonizers and the discrimination faced by the Hwaguk. As the summary implies, much of this commentary is done through the lens of art, in the perceived value of art styles from different nationalities, art theft, and art destruction.
For fans of the Machineries of the Empire trilogy, the worldbuilding and the magic system will seem the most familiar. The Razanei rely heavily on their automata, automated machines that can obey basic commands, tireless and un-swayed by human emotion. These automata are brought to life by special pigments, made from the destroyed works of dead Hwaguk artists, are used to form glyphs that command the automata. From having read some of Lee’s short stories, this is a concept Lee’s explored before. However, Phoenix Extravagant has really expanded that concept with the horrifying background of the pigments and made it truly fascinating to read.
Of the characters, Jebi, our non-binary, pacifist, “I just want to paint” artist was my favorite. From their introduction, it’s clear that Jebi just wants to paint, and if it has to be for the Razanei government and he has to adopt a Razanei name, so be it. Unfortunately for Jebi, making a living as an artist is difficult and instead of working as a typical salaried artist, they get dragged into a secret military project, the dragon automata Arazi. Naturally, having met Arazi and realizing this dragon is sapient, they hatch a plan to break him out. One of my favorite aspects about Jebi it’s very obvious they have no idea what they’re doing. Every plan, every action, is tinged with a sense of ‘oh fuck I hope this works’ and ‘holy shit that worked?’. Lee captures the extremely erratic behaviour of artists extremely well, from the 2AM bouts of inspiration to the hours upon hours of staring at a blank sheet of paper. There are some hilarious scenes where Jebi uses this to convince the Ministry guards to let them into places ‘because artist things, y’know?’. And the Ministry guards, apparently used to this behavior, just rolls with it. Jebi embodies peak Chaotic Dumbass Energy and I love them.
Aside from Jebi, there are Vei, the Ministry of Armor’s Duelist prime, Jebi’s project manager and later lover, Bongsunga, Jebi’s older sister, and Arazi, the dragon automata. I enjoyed Vei’s character as the rational one of the pairing. Jebi’s unabashed pining for her was extremely cute to read. However, as the two of them got closer, I felt like there was a lack of chemistry. I think this is largely due to a lack of Vei ever really showing affection for Jebi beyond dialogue. Bongsunga took longer to warm up to and early on I just thought she was a hardass. However, we get more of her backstory and her activities in the second half of the book and I found myself appreciating her pragmatism and dedication to her people, even if it meant going beyond her personal stakes. Arazi, was, as expected, extremely lovable. Arazi comes off as a young sheltered, though mature child, constantly asking Jebi to explain sensations that he cannot experience. And also he’s a dragon. What more can a reader want?
Besides the lack of chemistry, one minor point I had issue with was the more fantastical elements. For a book so mired in practicality, the more fantasy elements like the Celestials just chilling out on the Moon or the Razenai trying to build something to travel to the moon seemed almost out of place.
Overall, I rate this book a 45. Yoon Ha Lee brings together a stark and fascinating world inspired by the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century. The characters, Jebi, Vei, Bongsunga, and Arazi are all extremely lovable, though I had issues with Jebi and Vei’s chemistry. I will have to say, that ending was, uh, unexpected.
r/Fantasy 2020 Bingo Squares:
- Novel Published in 2020
- Book that Made You Laugh (it’s not an intrinsically funny book, but some of the shit Jebi does really did make me laugh)
- Novel Featuring Politics