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Cindy Pon

REVIEW: Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon

REVIEW: Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Dear Ms. Pon,

I read your debut, Silver Phoenix, when it was first released and enjoyed it. Like Jane, I’m a big fan of multicultural stories and it was wonderful to see a YA fantasy featuring a setting based on ancient China. So I’ve been looking forward to your follow-up for a quite a while. I wish I could say the wait was worth it.

Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy PonSilver Phoenix ended on a bit of a cliffhanger regarding the romantic subplot. It was a very bittersweet ending that left me wishing and hoping that Ai Ling’s story was not over. Ai Ling accomplished her goal, but she didn’t get the guy. How sad is that?

Fury of the Phoenix picks up where Silver Phoenix ended, with Ai Ling tracking down her love, Chen Yong, because she’s been having terrible dreams warning of danger to him. Most people would assume these dreams mean nothing or are just a nocturnal manifestation of her subconscious. But Ai Ling knows a thing or two about the supernatural and fantastical, so she trusts her instincts.

Chen Yong has decided to seek out his birth father, a foreigner not of the kingdom of Xia. The journey involves a long sea voyage to his father’s homeland. Ai Ling decides to join him, even if it means sneaking aboard the ship.

But the journey doesn’t proceed smoothly. For one, Chen Yong is not thrilled to see her. For another, Ai Ling is plagued by guilt over events that took place in Silver Phoenix. And worst of all, her nightmares and visions give her insight into her nemesis, Zhong Ye, whom she thought she’d defeated.

I think my less-than-enthused reaction to this novel is due to a combination of factors. I’ve been anticipating Fury for a while now and despite my best efforts, sometimes a long wait time results in raised expectations. I try not to do this because raised expectations have burned me numerous times in the past but it’s difficult to do that when we’re talking about Asian-influenced fantasy. I love Asian-influence fantasy so I’m constantly hoping the next story will be the one that breaks out.

But more than that, I think the kind of story Fury of Phoenix tells is not the one I was expecting, nor the kind of narrative I wanted. I’d hoped for more fantastical adventures along the lines of what we saw in the previous novel. There’s a sea voyage and a new country to explore. And while we were treated to menacing pirates and some family intrigue concerning Chen Yong’s father, these scenes were overshadowed by the secondary narrative.

And this is my main problem about Fury of the Phoenix. The novel is split into two storylines: one about Ai Ling’s present and one about Zhong Ye’s past. Zhong Ye, for those readers new to these books, is the villain of Silver Phoenix. His inclusion is the root of my dissatisfaction. I thought we were done with Zhong Ye. I thought we would move onto other adventures, other opponents, other goals. Instead, we were given a retread.

Part of it is that I personally don’t care to see villains redeemed, especially when they were portrayed in a particularly heinous way. I have no interest in such narratives. I also have no desire to read stories about how love can destroy us by leading us astray because it can make us do horrible things. That is not a story I care for in any way.

On top of all that, we also discover everything we thought we knew about Silver Phoenix and the circumstances leading up to her death was wrong. Maybe if there had been some hints of this in the previous book or maybe if recasting the story served some purpose, I’d like this aspect more. Instead I was left questioning what the point of it all.

But it wasn’t just Zhong Ye’s half of the book that gave me problems. It was also Ai Ling’s interactions with Chen Yong. Maybe I’m just looking back with rose-colored glasses, but I remember really liking the romantic subplot and their relationship. Here, their interactions left me cold and at times were wooden and 2D. Their relationship just did not develop in a way that was organic or believable to me.

On the other hand, I still enjoyed the setting. Even though much of Ai Ling’s storyline took place on a boat and in a foreign country, we still got to see much of the Asian setting through Zhong Ye’s eyes. I personally don’t recommend reading this book on an empty stomach because like its predecessor, the food descriptions made me hungry.

I did finish the book so despite my complaints, it wasn’t a DNF. That said, I suspect how readers receive this book will depend on their feelings towards Zhong He’s narrative. It makes up a significant portion of the book, so it can’t easily be ignored. And at times, I thought it overshadowed Ai Ling’s storyline which is a shame because Ai Ling is the character I wanted to read about — her journey, her story, her growth and evolution as a person. Instead, I got the tale of a man’s fall and how it impacted a poor girl in the present. As for the cover, I have nothing to say about it that hasn’t been said already. C

My regards,
Jia

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Dear Author

REVIEW: Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Dear Ms. Pon,

book review I fall into that category of people who wish more fantasy novels set in non-Western settings were available to the general readership at large.   And while I’m it, I want more than just those non-Western settings; I also want the stories of the non-white characters that live in those worlds.     Diversity, multiculturalism — these are things that we’ve encouraged and discussed in the past here at DA.   It doesn’t matter what the genre is — romance, fantasy, young adult — I personally want to see more of it.

I was predisposed to like your debut because not only was it set in a fantasy world inspired by ancient China, it featured an Asian heroine.   Like Jane, I have a bias towards Asian heroines.   And an Asian heroine in a fantasy that’s not exoticized, fetishized, or made into a prize for the strapping hero?   Definitely a plus for me.

Ai Ling is the daughter of a disgraced scholar who was exiled from the Imperial court before she was born.   But then one day her father is called back for reasons she doesn’t know or understand, leaving Ai Ling and her mother to fend for themselves.   As months pass with no word, they grow increasingly worried and distressed.   Things come to a head when a lecherous merchant proclaims his intent to take Ai Ling to be the latest in a string of wives.   Even though Ai Ling has been all but declared unmarriageable thanks to a disastrous betrothal, the idea horrifies her.   And it’s enough to make her embark on a journey to find her missing father and bring him home.

Almost immediately Ai Ling learns forces are conspiring against her.   She knows she’s not entirely normal — she’s able to see into other people’s souls and hear their thoughts, an ability that manifested during her failed betrothal.   But her inexplicable ability didn’t prepare her for an encounter with a serpentine monster that drags her into a lake and nearly drowns her in skeleton-infested waters.   Thankfully, she is pulled free by a young man named Chen Yong, who is on a filial mission of his own.   And Ai Ling will need his help on her quest, because it becomes apparent that the demon world doesn’t want her to succeed.

What I found most stunning about this book is the worldbuilding.   Many of the monsters were familiar to me from Asian mythology but I think readers not as well-versed will find it very fresh and a nice change of pace from other books in the genre.   I just found it very comforting in that sense because here was a book drawing on traditions and material more in line with my background than your average fantasy novel.

To be honest, I think Silver Phoenix will appeal most to fans of the wuxia genre.   The comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an apt one in many ways.   I don’t necessarily consider that movie the best example of the genre itself, but it’s probably the one most readers here will be familiar with.   But the adventures Ai ling encounters on her quest to find and free her father are reminiscent of classic wuxia serials — journeying through the countryside, staying in the homes of powerful lords, climbing a mountain to find the sage who can bless a gifted dagger, meeting with gods, and freeing immortals.   Silver Phoenix is very much an adventure novel and readers looking for that sort of thing will enjoy it a lot.

Ironically, this trait is also its weakest point.   Because of Ai Ling’s multiple adventures on the road to the Imperial palace, the book is somewhat episodic.   There is an overarching plot that serves as the backdrop for those adventures, of course, but the crux of it comes later in the book so people who want a stronger, more focused storyline might not enjoy it as much.   Speaking for myself, I wished for more on-page presence of the villain.   When we learn of Ai Ling’s connection to the antagonist and his reasons for holding her father prisoner, I expected more of a legitimate threat from him but I ultimately didn’t get it.   In that sense, I was left dissatisfied.

As a word of warning to those who aren’t as familiar with the wuxia genre, I will say the relationship between Ai Ling and Chen Yong might not turn out the way you expect or hope.   I thought the resolution to that subplot was very indicative of the types of stories I associate with the wuxia genre but it’s not the sort of ending that will work for every reader.   It worked for me but there is the caveat that I have a weakness for bittersweet endings.

Overall, I enjoyed Silver Phoenix for Ai Ling’s adventures through the various landscapes of its China-inspired world but I hoped for a stronger underlying plotline to drive the story along.   Towards the end, I felt the emotional power of the narrative fell flat, particularly on the idea of why it was Ai Ling, and Ai Ling alone, who had to face the antagonist.   The reasoning for doing so had a lot of dramatic potential but it failed to leave an impact on me.   After all, hanging yourself on your wedding night with your bridal veil and then lingering in the underworld for a couple hundred years, biding your time and gathering your power before allowing yourself to be reincarnated as a girl with the power to read people’s hearts and souls?   That’s a powerful fodder for an equally powerful narrative.   I wish more time and depth had been given to it.

I loved that at its heart, Silver Phoenix is a story about families.   Ai Ling embarks on this quest because of her love for her father.   She meets Chen Yong because he’s on a quest to find his birth parents.   However, I will say that the prologue is a bit out of place as it pertains more towards Chen Yong’s story than Ai Ling’s — and I consider Silver Phoenix to be solely Ai Ling’s story — and merely provided a tenuous connection between their respective family histories.   On the other hand, it does give me hope that Ai Ling and Chen Yong’s story is not finished, which may go a long way to making the ending easier to swallow.   B-

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.