|sigelphoenix (sigelphoenix) wrote,|
@ 2009-08-30 20:45:00
Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
I highly recommend that you all read Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia [note: some spoilers in the review excerpts], and I'll talk about why in a bit.
However, I also really want you to buy Silver Phoenix, for two reasons:
- Cindy Pon is a first-time published author, and while it's always important to buy the books of authors you want to support, I especially want to do it for this author whose career is one book old.
- An editor rejected the book, not on the strength of the writing, but because he said that "Asian fantasy does not sell." FUCK THAT SHIT, and let's show him that it does.
On to the review: Silver Phoenix is a Chinese historical fantasy about Ai Ling, a 17-year-old girl who seems normal for the daughter of a scholar - except, early on in the book, we learn things like the fact that Ai Ling can read and write, that most girls her age are already betrothed, and that her father was banished from the imperial court in disgrace. When her father goes missing during a trip to the capital city, Ai Ling does what any teenaged fantasy heroine worth her salt would do: she goes to rescue him. On the downside, she runs into demonic monsters along the way. On the upside, she also discovers her own mysterious abilities, meets a handsome and honorable stranger named Chen Yong, and eats some delicious food.
(I have to say, one of the things I love about Ai Ling is her voracious appetite. A kindred spirit! ;D She also describes most of her meals with delicious details, which of course I strongly approve of. Even if it did make me hungry at times when I could not access delicious Chinese food.)
Her journey itself is a lot of fun, and she meets a wide variety of fantastical creatures (not all demonic) along the way. The plot is pretty straightforward, but there's enough mystery to keep it intriguing, and enough adventure to keep it exciting.
One of the things that gave me the biggest thrill while reading this book was the fact that I was reading about a Chinese girl in (fantasy) China, and it was all perfectly normal. Ai Ling and her family are more or less traditional, and (not but) she is also an independent, intelligent heroine worthy of being a fictional role model. Unlike books that borrow East Asian elements for exotic flavor, the Chinese culture didn't feel tacked on or paraded around for our amusement/condescension/appropriation/ju
Somewhat relatedly, Ai Ling is feminine in a comfortable way as well. She isn't the only nurturing one, the only soft-hearted one, the only passive one, or the only scared one of the main characters. She does dress and wear her hair in typical feminine fashion - she doesn't challenge gender roles in a radical way - but she isn't a Girl Character (clearly distinguished from the Boy Character), if that makes sense.
I also liked how Ai Ling's journey is portrayed. It's realistic, for a YA fantasy novel, with Ai Ling running out of food or not having a safe place to sleep. She also runs into skeevy types, including a man who makes a creepy pass at her - which is realistic enough without being irritatingly cliche.
There is also a scene in which Ai Ling is attacked by a man who tries to rape her. I wish we could've gone without yet another threatened rape (I've seen too many of those in fantasy fiction), but there is a plot-related reason for it. Moreover, the scene wasn't played out in the usual way that I hate: Ai Ling is neither rescued by Chen Yong (so he can be appropriately Manly) nor does she fall to pieces when he arrives (so she can be appropriately Femininely Teary Yet Also Disrobed Enough To Remind Him Of Her Sexual Availability).
I also appreciate the moment when Ai Ling gives into temptation and reads Chen Yong's thoughts deliberately. It's a human error and quite believable, but I'm also glad that she regrets the action and feels guilt for the rest of the story - there's no easy answer or absolution there.
There are two things I wasn't happy with, and they both have to do with the ending.
First, the climactic confrontation between Ai Ling and the villain, Zhong Ye, feels a bit rushed. In contrast to the previous chapters of somewhat leisurely - though not lacking in tension - travel, the final couple of chapters speed by quickly, and not just because I was reading excitedly. There is a good build-up of tension during the wedding scenes, to be sure, but meeting Zhong Ye and then Ai Ling accessing her past life and killing Zhong Ye are two scenes that feel less intense than they deserve.
This criticism is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Pon is writing a prequel, the story of Silver Phoenix, which will presumably flesh out Zhong Ye as well. So the fact that he didn't get adequate attention in this story isn't so bad, though it still is a weakness in the book.
Second, the unrequited romance between Ai Ling and Chen Yong left me unsatisfied. Granted, this could just be because I'm unhappy that Ai Ling is unhappy, rather than being an actual problem with the book. But I remain undecided. On the one hand, we know that Chen Yong was/is in love with someone else, and it wouldn't have made sense for him to do an about-face and fall in love with Ai Ling. On the other hand, he did get to know her quite well, and I think they would work well as romantic partners, beyond just being the "main male character" + "main female character."
I choose to believe that, once Chen Yong travels to meet his family and learns to establish his identity on his own terms (a resolution his character does need), and meets Ai Ling again, he'll be able to explore his feelings for her in a healthy manner. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
Do read this book - buy it if you can - and keep an eye out for the forthcoming prequel.