Gyen Jebi is desperate enough for cash to pursue a government job. Nobody knows why the Razanei occupiers are so keen to recruit artists, but Jebi soon discovers they won’t take no for an answer. Assigned to a horrifying military project, Jebi must decide where their loyalties lie – if they can find the courage.
Yoon Ha Lee claimed a spot on my list of favourite authors with his reality-redefining dystopian space opera Ninefox Gambit, so you can imagine my delight to hear he was working on a stand-alone fantasy of art and rebellion. A reading at Worldcon in Dublin cemented my enthusiasm – so why has it taken me a year to review Phoenix Extravagant? Because I’m rubbish, that’s why. Moving swiftly on.
The world of Phoenix Extravagant is a modern fantasy setting inspired by the Japanese occupation of Korea, but with 100% more mechanical dragons and liver-eating fox spirits. Once again, Lee contrasts a repressive government (in this case a colonial occupying force) with a casually inclusive society that includes a non-binary protagonist, multiple on-page queer relationships and an adorable poly family.
Our protagonist Jebi is a self-absorbed artist, as oblivious as they are naive. Frustrated at earning peanuts painting folk art and with a looming deadline to repay gambling debts, they decide to try and get a job with the Ministry of Art. But Hwaguk – now Administrative Territory Fourteen – has been ruled by the Empire of Razan for the past six years; Jebi’s decision, however pragmatic, will put them in conflict with their overbearing sister Bongsunga, who lost her wife during the invasion. Unfortunately, Jebi is a terrible liar; and this time, they’ve gone too far.
Homeless and jobless, Jebi gets a job offer not from the Ministry of Art but the Ministry of Armor – and its soon clear they know far too much about Jebi’s circumstances. Some offers can’t be refused, leaving Jebi to learn the mysterious grammar of glyphs and pigments used to program the magical automata that act as the Empire’s enforcers.
Enter Arazi: the most ambitious automaton yet, an experimental dragon prototype whose faulty programming caused it to massacre an entire garrison. The deputy Minister is determined to have his prize war machine fixed so that Arazi can be deployed against Hwagugin rebels. Predictably, Arazi was my biggest highlight, all insatiable curiosity and unexpected compassion (who at one point casually uses the phrase meat people, I’m still laughing). As Jebi develops a deeper understanding of Arazi’s programming – and of their own predicament – they realise they can no longer ignore the injustices perpetrated by the Razanei regime.
You might expect this to be a glittering dark fantasy, given the example of Machineries of Empire and the era it reflects. Certainly, Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t blunt the sharp edges; the narrative is full of cultural erasure and the murderous priorities of foreign rulers who themselves live in fear of Western aggressors across the sea. Jebi absorbs unthinking micro-aggressions and struggles with the stalking paranoia of being constantly judged by those who believe in their fundamental superiority; as well as facing rejection by their sister for choosing to collaborate with the invaders in order to survive, rather than accepting death as a reasonable price to pay for freedom.
Yet Phoenix Extravagant feels oddly wholesome in spite of its dark themes. This is largely down to Jebi, who is a fundamentally innocent soul driven by the desire to save the ones they love (Rose Tico would be so proud) if also – unapologetically – their own skin. While I found their almost wilful ignorance and early selfishness frustrating at times, their scattershot thoughts also made me smile. They’re a hapless underdog; in spite of their flaws it was easy to root for them as they faced the realities their sister had shielded them from.
Those same qualities sometimes made the novel feel like it was written for a younger audience (I don’t think it was, although I do think it has cross-audience appeal). It took me a while to dial my expectations in accordingly, but once I did I found an enjoyable rollercoaster of conscience and honour, love and loyalty. Phoenix Extravagant showcases Yoon Ha Lee’s flair for compromised characters and dramatic (even melodramatic, looking at you Vei) plots, along with immersive world-building and irresistible sentient machines. If pacifist war dragons and socially awkward artists who accidentally kiss people to distract them sound like your jam, I’d recommend taking a look.
PHOENIX EXTRAVAGANT is out now in hardback and ebook (just 99p/99c on Kindle this month), and will be released in paperback on August 17th (US) / 19th (UK).