REVIEW: Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Dear 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 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,
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-