Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Solaris, ebook £5.99
Review by Lottie Lightfoot
Phoenix Extravagant is a slow-paced yet gripping tale of colonisation, authoritarianism, and resistance. The book features a non-binary artist, a mecha dragon designed for war, and a government duellist, backdropped by a thinly veiled Korea during Japanese occupation, which makes for an exciting take on silkpunk.
Jebi, our non-binary protaganist, states proudly that they’re married to their art, but what also becomes painfully clear is that they have no knowledge or interest in little else. For Jebi, it doesn’t matter who governs so long as they can paint. Their indifference especially pertains to the country’s current political climate, where Jebi’s home country of Hwaguk finds itself under the thumb of the Razanei government who impose curfews, restrict movement, and ensure the streets are ever patrolled by the Automata – robotic humanoids devoid of speech or expression.
They soon become at odds with this as they are thrown into the midst of the Razanei government. Forced into a difficult situation, they start work as an artist for the Ministry of Armor. There, they begin to uncover the horrific crimes of the government, including the awful ingredients they use to make their pigments, and realise that they can no longer remain impartial. Unable to stay out of it, Jebi realises that they must do something so they hatch a plan to steal Arazi – the powerful dragon automaton of the government intended for war.
There’s nothing particularly special about Jebi. They mostly wander through life trying to get by. Their art is always described as “just good enough”. But it’s Jebi’s normality that makes this book so special, as it’s one very ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation. Most of the novel is centred around Jebi’s transition from an idle painter with little care for things beyond food and pigments and money, to fighting against the government for what they believe is right and to save the people they love, even if they’re not the bravest or smartest. This is juxtaposed with the philosophising Arazi, who has a strong distinction between right and wrong that has been literally programmed into them. They make an amusing pair and it’s their relationship that really drives this wonderful story home.
Life under colonisation is an overarching theme. It unflinchingly shows what is lost under colonist rule, how assimilation is pushed, and traces of the country’s national identity is lost or destroyed. Lee takes care to note the differences between Razan and Hwaguk culture through describing the food, language, culture, and accents, with Jebi becoming more attached to their culture as they feel the Razanei ripping it away.
Lee has been appraised for his touching, human portrayals of the LGBTQ community in his previous work. This couldn’t be truer with Phoenix Extravagant. Jebi, and other non-binary folk in Hwaguk, are referred to as geu-ae, and are considered just another part of life. Same-sex relationships and polyamory are never met with derision or hate – only acknowledgement and acceptance. The attention to detail and the realness of the characters is warming and refreshing. Lee takes care to include details that often only recognisable in the LGBTQ community, such as recognising gender identity from little cues such as haircuts.
While Phoenix Extravagant doesn’t have heaps of swashbuckling action and adventure other titles promise, this doesn’t make it a fault. Instead of non-stop action, the book takes time to focus on life under colonialist rule, Jebi’s personal journey, and the growing rebellion. The characters were compelling, multi-dimensional, and more than a little awkward. The book makes for delightful and fun reading and is strongly recommended.