‘Phoenix Extravagant’ is an intriguing fantasy novel with a magic system I adored, but unfortunately never quite reached its potential. It’s much shorter than many modern fantasy novels, coming in at under 400 pages, and I wonder if it would have been better if everything was slowed down and stretched out to give more time to connect to the plot and characters.
The protagonist, Jebi, is a Hwagukin orphan in a region occupied by the conquering Razanei. Jebi is an artist – a painter – but struggles to find work. After an argument with her sister leaves her homeless, she takes a job with the Ministry of Armor – the Razanei ministry responsible for producing automatons, autonomous robots which enforce the rules in Hwagukin and help them defeat their enemies. Her job? To fix the broken dragon automaton blamed for the destruction of an entire village. Caught between her loyalty to her sister and the unexpected connections she makes inside, Jebi must decide if she’ll complete the task or sabotage the Razanei military might.
Jebi is an artist, and depicted in a very stereotypical way – out of touch with the world, uncaring of politics and invasions, connecting to her art more than she connects to people. However, their most defining character trait is their inconsistency. They flip-flop between hating their sister, loyalty to their sister, fear of their sister, and more, in the space of pages. All these emotions are understandable, but there’s no justification. They remind me of a pancake being tossed around, never sure which side they want to face up. I found it very difficult to care about them or their choices when they couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted either. As a rare non-binary protagonist, I want to like them, but I need more showing of feelings than telling and generally some sort of personality beyond their profession.
Azari, the dragon automaton, is the single best character in the book. I adore them. They’re regularly hilarious and so fascinated by ordinary things. The entire system behind the automatons and how they work and think is fascinating, and another reason I wish this book had been longer – more time to explore the world and its intricacies, rather than relying on the hard-to-like Jebi to carry the story.
Vei, the duelist prime tasked with monitoring Jebi in the Ministry of Armor, is also an interesting character. They have a complex past which is gradually unveiled and their interactions with Jebi are excellent. However, the way their relationship is written almost makes it insta-love – we’re told that time passes, but in the space of a few sentences they’ve gone from prisoner-enforcer to potential love interests. Enemies to lovers is a popular trope in fantasy but it’s mostly squandered here for the sake of keeping the page count down. I wish we’d got to see things develop so that it felt authentic, rather than simply being told Jebi suddenly had romantic feelings.
The setting is excellent. Inspired by Korea under Japanese convention, it’s full of references and traditions which are fascinating to read about. The varying feelings towards the Razanei conquerors – and the Razanei’s insistence that their occupation was far more favourable than Hawgukin’s inevitable destruction by the West – are well-written, and the addition of the fantasy elements with automatons and artistic magic are neatly done. I’d love to know more about the magic system – this is currently a standalone, but one with clear potential for a sequel, so hopefully the magic will be developed and explained in any subsequent books.
Overall, this is a decent fantasy with excellent LGBTQIA+ representation but knocked down by a protagonist it’s hard to connect with and a plot which deserved more time to be fleshed out. Those who care more about the quality of their fantasy worlds and less about the depth of characters may very well love this book, but for those who prefer character-driven stories this may not be the book for you. Recommended for fans of quick fantasy reads, Asian-inspired settings, and own-voices LGBTQIA+ representation.
Thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 20th October 2020