Obligatory “look at that cover” moment: LOOK at that COVER.
I think the most effective tl;dr I can produce for this review is that I started Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant while drinking my morning coffee today and it is 6:31 PM and I have finished it. It ain’t like it’s a huge doorstopper of a book, but at 343 pages it’s not exactly a novella either. Lee’s work is proving impressively versatile; his Machineries of Empire series is absurdly complicated adult science fiction where all the weapons are based on advanced mathematics, his book Dragon Pearl is middle-grade, and Phoenix Extravagant hits somewhere in the middle; it feels more like fantasy than the rest of his books, although there’s a mechanical dragon at the center of the story and there are definitely silkpunk (is it still silkpunk if it’s inspired by Korea and not Japan?) tendencies throughout.
At any rate, it’s really goddamned good, and it’s quite a bit more accessible than the Machineries series, so it’s easier to recommend to people who aren’t sci-fi nerds in their bones like some of us. It’s also, since I’ve been talking about this a fair amount lately, one of the better books featuring a nonbinary main character that I’ve seen lately. Lee’s Hwaguk culture openly accepts nonbinary as a third orientation, and Jebi, the main character, uses they/them pronouns throughout, but it’s made clear how the nonbinary (there’s a word for them, but it’s slipped my mind and it’s not used a ton of times so I’m not going to go looking) characters are identified as such by other people, and Lee also doesn’t play the game where you never describe your nonbinary character so that your audience can’t get a fix on them. There are enough clues sprinkled throughout that if you really need to know what Jebi’s genitals are you’ll have a decent guess by the end of the book, and it’s clear that nonbinary individuals do play a role in society and their nonbinariness, for lack of a better word, actually means something.
Right, the plot: Jebi is an artist living in Hwaguk, a peninsula nation that has been invaded and taken over by the neighboring Razanei. There is a third large country to the north of Hwaguk that doesn’t play much of a role in the story, and then there is the looming threat of invasion by the “Westerners.” This is not, in other words, the most subtle second-world fiction out there; Hwaguk is Korea, the Razanei are Japan, and the third country is China. Jebi’s older sister, who raised them, opposes the Razanei invaders, and she actually throws Jebi out of her house for being a collaborator early in the book when they try to get a sort of court artist position with the Razanei. Eventually the book ends up being a story of subterfuge and revolution, as Jebi more or less gets press-ganged into a job in the Razanei Armor division, using their skills to paint sigils that help the Razanei control their automatons– shades here of Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars series.
Along the way, there’s the aforementioned dragon, and … well, Jebi doesn’t quite do what they’re expected to do with the dragon’s sigils, and the book doesn’t end promising a sequel, but it does end in a literal place I want to know a lot more about, so I’ll be quite disappointed if we don’t end up seeing more of this world. We’re getting close enough to the end of the year by now that the outlines of my Best Books post are starting to come into visibility, and I’d be surprised were this book not to be on there somewhere. Definitely check it out.