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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.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

13 Comments

  1. Estara
    May 06, 2009 @ 05:22:23

    Nifty! I had read some comments by the author on Sherwood Smith’s LJ and had wishlisted the book. Sherwood recommended the book, too.

    The author also draws beautifully: but I think she mostly blogs here.

    ReplyReply

  2. Dana
    May 06, 2009 @ 05:27:13

    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.

    Yes! I’m always searching for fantasy novels that aren’t set in Western cultures too. It’s why I adored Avatar, the TV series anyway, I’ll probably be skipping the movie. Loved how the creators took a bunch of non-Western cultures/myths to create the Avatar world.

    The most recent fantasy book with a non-Western background I tried was Across the Nightingale Floor, part of The Tales of Otori series by Hearn, but unfortunately the writing just didn’t capture my attention and I never finished the book. I loved the concept of the book, but the execution fell flat for me. OTOH, my sister loved the series.

    Silver Phoenix looks interesting, and the cover looks gorgeous. I’ll look for it the next time I’m at the bookstore. Thanks for the review!

    ReplyReply

  3. Jayne
    May 06, 2009 @ 06:02:56

    and the cover looks gorgeous.

    That cover is just oozing lovely wonderfulness.

    ReplyReply

  4. Angela James
    May 06, 2009 @ 06:23:43

    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.

    Have you ever tried Kylie Chan’s trilogy? http://www.kyliechan.com/

    She’s an Australian author, and they’re fantasy in an Asian setting with white and non-white characters. She’s got some meticulous mythology in use, and while the books are LONG and I thought could have benefited from some judicious cutting, they’re quite good and unusual, as fantasies go, because of the setting and the modern day, but not quite, setting. My only other complaint would be that the “trilogy” doesn’t actually complete the story and it’s been a long, long wait for the next book (almost two years now) but I think book four is done now and hopefully to be released later this year.

    ReplyReply

  5. Juliana Stone
    May 06, 2009 @ 07:08:10

    The cover is magnificent and I’ve been reading about this book on many sites. Gonna pick it up for sure!

    ReplyReply

  6. Jia
    May 06, 2009 @ 07:21:43

    @Dana: I’m a huge Avatar fan too, although I will probably be skipping the live action movie.

    I’ve read the first three books in the Tales of the Otori series. I liked the concepts and ideas but the execution tends to fall apart, especially so as the series progress. I have the final two books in the series (or rather, the final book and the prequel) so maybe I’ll readjust my opinion whenever I finally get around to reading them. It does have its good points as a series but it has some definite weaknesses too.

    @Angela James: No, I haven’t! Thanks for the rec. I’ll check it out.

    ReplyReply

  7. Shiloh Walker
    May 06, 2009 @ 07:41:55

    I have a very hard time getting into YA books for some reason, but man, that is one beautiful cover.

    ReplyReply

  8. Jessica Kennedy
    May 06, 2009 @ 08:43:45

    I will read this one soon! Ninja style.

    ReplyReply

  9. Lexie C.
    May 06, 2009 @ 08:46:30

    I enjoyed Silver Phoenix quite a bit as well. I’m not as big into wuxia as a lot of my friends seem to think I am (aside from one drama, the ‘famous’ movies brought here to America and a few manhuas, that’s my entire involvement, which I suppose is better then their involvement), but I can definitely see how fans of that genre would enjoy this. I can very easily see Silver Phoenix made into a drama or manhua.

    I too found the revelation about Ai Ling a sort of ‘oh really? that’s it?’ and the Big Bad seemed happy to send minions so when we finally have him on scene he didn’t seem so fearsome. Somebody else did, but not him.

    I was sad about how the relationship ended up, but appreciated that she didn’t automatically go for the classic western ending. Plus I think too that it lends itself either nicely to a sequel or as an ending.

    ReplyReply

  10. Mora
    May 06, 2009 @ 12:31:41

    I can’t wait to read this. It looks amazing.

    ReplyReply

  11. cindy
    May 06, 2009 @ 15:06:53

    thanks for reading and reviewing!

    1. i am not very familiar with wuxia at all, other than
    the few translated films that came to america like
    house of flying daggers and hero.

    2. i didn’t realize my ending was fitting of that type
    of genre. from the outset [SPOILER] i wanted to write
    a story about unrequited love. because that’s what i
    experienced the most (and really all i knew) as a teen. =)

    3. the sequel is turning out quite diff than the debut.
    makes me both nervous and excited!

    straight from the author’s mouth.

    again, thank you, jia! and all the commenters!

    ReplyReply

  12. Sherry Thomas
    May 07, 2009 @ 06:57:54

    Interesting. I read tons of wuxia growing up. And I actually have an ARC of this book sitting at home, sent to me by my agent.

    Will move it up the TBR list.

    ReplyReply

  13. Topics about Love-stories » Blog Archive » REVIEW: Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
    May 09, 2009 @ 03:40:43

    [...] Lena Nelson Dooley placed an interesting blog post on REVIEW: Silver Phoenix by Cindy PonHere’s a brief overviewDear Ms. Pon, 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… [...]

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