Book Review: Phoenix Extravagant

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee


Dragons. Art. Revolution.

Jebi isn’t a revolutionary. They’re an artist, and they just want to paint, dammit. So when they’re turned away from the painting exams, thrown out of their house after their sister finds out their adoption of another man, and they get an offer from the Ministry of Armor to paint—they take it. Granted, they have little choice, but they take it.

“If standing on principle means that you lose the people those principles are meant to protect, what’s the point?”

I. Loved. This.

YES. Me, a non-arty for arty’s sake person loved this book about an Artist, capital A.

This was a beautiful piece of anti-colonialist fantasy that I was so happy to read!

Jebi is a painter who creates art for the sake of art. That is their life’s blood and their passion, and they have been grateful for their elder sister, who has supported them in their pursuit. However, in a colonized country that is still occupied by the invaders, finding a paying job that allows the pursuit of art is…really difficult, particularly if you are not one of the colonizers. So Jebi changes their name (because what’s in a name?) to a colonizer’s name, and that change is the last betrayal their sister will accept.

Anyway, I loved this way more than I was expecting to love it, because 1) it surprised me and 2) it was funny as fuck. I wasn’t expecting it to be funny.

Vei’s mouth quirked at the corners. “Can you think of anything likely to be faster than a dragon this size? Especially since Arazi assures me that it can fly.”
{I can definitely fly,} Arazi said with disturbing confidence.
{Have you ever tried it?}
{I’m a dragon. I can fly.}

There were marks of humor that had me howling more than was probably appropriate, because parts of this hit that sweet spot of absurdist humor that I love.

And there were higher points, like the destruction of art for literal power/magic, and what it means to destroy art to turn it into something else, and what it means to value art only as the means to an end instead of an end in and of itself. And what becomes good art, or art that is valued. Jebi’s people’s art was sought out for its destruction and ability to power mechanicals and the colonizer’s army of things, while the colonizer’s art was valued as the pinnacle of society.

Within this discussion of what is art lies another point: at what point does the mimicry of the thing become the thing itself? And do the origins matter?

In this world, dragons existed (or had existed). However, Arazi was an imitation of the thing but had become the thing. It was art that had been imbued with a sense of purpose and self, to the point where it believed it was a real dragon, so it was a real dragon. Period.

Vei lifted one shoulder, let it fall. “It’s your choice, she said, resigned. “I will keep the hostiles from touching you. I will cut down anyone who so much as stirs a hair on your head.”
Jebi was torn between saying You are embarrassing me and I am going to take up my brush and make a painting of you that they will talk about for the next 10,000 years. They said neither.

I also loved the relationships in this book.

There’s Vei, a singular duelist and swordswoman. Upright, honorable, dedicated to a fault. Yet, she’s also got an interesting past, with a high-ranking father in the colonizing army, and two other parents who were part of the colonized. She was seen as both conqueror and traitor, to the point where her identity took up sort of a cognitive dissonance of two separate and opposing things. And her relationship with Jebi really needed stronger communication skills, but they got better at it (also, how much can you truthfully communicate when both of you are under suspicion and in the enemy’s stronghold). And, of course, Vei’s really not so sterling past (with a it was war and what happens in war is not personal attitude).

There are Vei’s parents, who had little page time but were wonderful.

There’s Jebi’s sister, who’s name I cannot remember, who had layers of her own and surprising depths, most of which sprang from her grief at the loss of her wife. Her tale was one that catapulted her into action after suffering from the loss of a loved one, whereas Vei was catapulted into action to prevent the loss of a loved one, which was interesting to see how the two women were used as foils in Jebi’s life.

There is also Jebi’s friend, who’s name I cannot remember, who showed Jebi kindness while also betraying her own people in order to gain a scrape of power and fashionable lifestyle in a world where she would ordinarily have been afforded neither.

There is a duality there that’s explored throughout many of the characters in the book—where you show one person one aspect of yourself, and another something else entirely, to the point where there are so many pieces that are you and not you, depending on who is looking at you. Like a painting, or art, in many regards.

And of course there is Arazi, the dragon who was just so fucking precious and amazing and initially scary as fuck, which just goes to show that what is not understood is frightening, and it takes the knowing and understanding to make it less frightening (in some regards…in other regards, as also shown in the book, more knowing and understanding makes things more frightening).

Anywho, after this long and garbled review where I have written (as usual) long blahblahs about things that have no fucking point and make no fucking sense, let me just say that I loved this book and I also loved the world-building, where everything fit perfectly together and was just so beautiful and so well done and did I mention that it was funny? Particularly because much of the subject matter was so grim and the implications so dire.

Also, it’s queer as hell!

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.

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