Phoenix Extravagant – Yoon Ha Lee

“Gyen Jebi strove to keep their hand from shaking as they dipped their brush into the paint they’d mixed from the provided pigments, a part of every artist’s training.”

I’ve been meaning to read some of Yoon Ha Lee’s work (e.g. Ninefox Gambit) for quite a while now, so when this new title appeared on Netgalley I jumped at the chance. Apparently it’s not too similar to the better-known work, but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Jebi is an artist in a fantasy version of Korea, during the occupation by the Japanese. Only in this reality the invaders won with the use of automatons, ‘robots’ brought to life with intricate symbols painted on their masks as commands. Jebi needs work and doesn’t see why they shouldn’t take money from the enemy, but things spiral out of control far quicker than they’re prepared for.

And then there’s the dragon automaton…

Despite the automatons, I’d put this in the fantasy genre, and it’s always welcome to see something that feels very different from Tolkien and elves. Like most Western readers, I don’t know much about the history used as background here, but it works so very well.

Between the themes and Jebi’s profession, this is such a visual book – I would have loved to see some of the art being discussed on the page. But, how could you portray the magical pigments that trick the eye, with such fabulous names as the ‘Phoenix Extravagant’ of the title?

I’d also have loved more of the dragon. It takes a bit less than half the book to really introduce them as a character, and they are wonderful! Jebi is a good main character – and if you think otherwise, I’m sure you’ll get your head around the non-binary pronouns quickly enough – and I really liked the Duel Master, Vei, albeit not with a huge role, but hey – dragon! 🙂 Philosopher, cat-like, curious dragon at that. Wonderful!

The story seemed to go from world building to action pretty quickly, and I was almost surprised by how fast the tale sped past. If I have one complaint, though, it’s that the ended felt quite truncating. I haven’t seen anything to suggest this is the first in a series, but if not then things do seem to end a bit abruptly.

Still. For painting really wonderful pictures in your head, this is recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-15th October 2020

My rating: 8/10

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