Silver Phoenix

Silver PhoenixBy Cindy Pon [AmazonLibraryThing]

After Ai Ling’s father disappears, strange things start to happen. She begins to develop strange powers, like the ability to hear people’s thoughts. But when a local merchant tries to blackmail her into marriage, she runs away and vows to bring her father home. But as she searches for him, something evil is searching for her…

I picked this book up because I’m making an effort to delve into sf/f novels not set in Ye Olde Fake Europe, since so much of fantasy centers around Western-style (and very white-washed) worlds and myths. But I probably would have picked it up anyway, since it’s a story about a teenage girl discovering a super power and saving the day. That certainly falls into the category of “things I love.” And those two things sum up the book’s major strengths: the world, and Ai Ling as a character.

The world of Silver Phoenix is great; it’s a high-fantasy take on ancient China. I’m not familiar enough with actual Chinese culture to know how accurate it is, but it’s certainly rich enough that I’m not concerned. Everything from the bizarre creatures Ai Ling runs into to the noodle shops she eats at make it distinct and genuine. It is very refreshing to read a book where the well-worn fantasy tropes are reimagined — and while they presumably aren’t new to readers who grew up with Chinese mythology, I (like, I would guess, most American readers) was raised pretty strictly on high fantasy and Western traditions, so this is all new and fresh to me. And the writing is lovely to boot; while at times a bit passive for my taste, it paints simply gorgeous pictures.

As for Ai Ling, it took awhile for her to really come into her own, but overall she was an awesomely active hero. She’s smart, both well-educated and clever; and while “young girl who doesn’t want to get married,” is basically a stock character, Ai Ling herself is not stock at all. Her fear of marriage — and of sex in particular — is very well-handled. She learns how her powers work quickly and is not afraid to use them, so we see her develop from determined but nearly defenseless into someone who can handle her own in a fight. And she’s actively feminist; there are several times in the book when she contemplates how women in her society are relegated to inner chambers, to being wives and mothers, and not supposed to have adventures like the kind she is experiencing. And the book makes it very clear that even when she is rescued by her companions, Chen Yong and Li Rong, she is the protagonist, and ultimately it’s her story. Ai Ling gets an A+.

All that said, the book had a few weak points, too. Through the book, I kept waiting for an explanation of where Ai Ling’s powers came from, for some real backstory about her past life and about the villain. That was sadly lacking; you learn she had a past life, and that the villain is a seriously bad dude, but that’s about it. This may be something being held off for a sequel, but it left the book feeling a bit awkward and lacking.

The other thing that left me scratching my head involved a subplot with Li Rong, and involves a major spoiler: show

But those are just minor things. The book moves a bit slowly, but picks up a lot in the second half. But the strong points far outweighed the weak ones, and since this was a debut novel, I can only imagine good things from Pon in the future. Thus, I will probably pick up more of her work when it comes out, and Silver Phoenix earns four cupcakes.

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    4 Responses to “Silver Phoenix”

    1. Melody says:

      Seeing this review made me so excited because, look! YA fantasy about an Asian girl! My dreams have been realized! Will totally look for it when I’m in a bookstore next.

    2. Garoben says:

      I think I’ve recommended this in another review, but I’m gonna throw out the Twelve Kingdoms series by Fuyumi Ono, really interesting political fantasy set in not “ye olde Europe”. Not a whole lot going on in the way of romance, but the translations are very good. The second two novels sort of lack in female characters, (it’s Japanese, so yeah :\.) but the first one has some really good ones, happily.

    3. […] Random thing #6: I may change the format around here a bit, and link to stuff I’ve written on various other blogs and elsewhere. Mostly because I would then actually have things to post, as this is my least-frequently-updated blog. (Possibly, I have too many blogs…) Over at Tweenage, I have recently written about The Wizards of Waverly Place movie and joined Jess to review Bandslam and Aliens in the Attic, and if you’re bored and like pop music, might I recommend our Official Tweenage Wasteland Official Boy Band Watch? And at Active Voice, I significantly less recently reviewed Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix. […]

    4. […] year, I reviewed Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix at Active Voice. The cover is the image to the right over there. And among other things, I said: I […]

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