Dragons. Art. Revolution.
Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.
One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.
But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.
What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…
While I have been eyeing the author’s book for a long time, this is my first Yoon Ha Lee read. I was drawn in by the cool dragon on the cover, and a synopsis that sounded unique and interesting. In my opinion, Phoenix Extravagant lives up to that billing.
First and foremost, I want to mention that I am not a lover of art, and there is so much about the basis of this story that is art-based. I think it is such a cool thing for people that are into it, but I have an especially hard time with anything painting-related. It just does not interest me that much, so I had a little bit of trouble at the start getting into it. I knew from the synopsis that the narrative would include some aspect of art, but it was a little more detailed than I imagined. I was able to get past that and grab on to the things I did enjoy about the book: the characters, culture, and story arc.
I think one of Lee’s big strengths is writing characters. So much of the writing felt really intimate to me, small scenes where one can in invest in the details. The story is told from Jebi’s perspective, and so the reader is asked to make a strong connection with them. Spending 350-ish pages inside their head with their thoughts and feelings brings a ton of perception to the plot points. And this connection extends to Jebi’s friends and family, as well, plus to that of the automaton dragon Arazi. Their relationship with Arazi is so interesting, because it is a mechanical object brought to life by a special kind of paint. I do not want to get into the weeds too much with the details on that, because spoilers, but the process allows for Jebi to link up and communicate with the dragon. So, the reader kind of goes through that with Jebi, and, in my opinion, this book is really about making connections and the good that can come of it. But, also, there is a lot about the consequences of not seeing things through the eyes of others. There is a lot of “othering” in the book on a couple of different levels, and I think the themes are extremely relevant.
As far as storyline goes, I cannot really think of anything like this I have read. The combination of art, culture, technology, to go along with a different take on dragons makes this one of the most unique books I have ever read. That was one of the aspects of the book I enjoyed the most: the fact that it was not a story I had really seen before. The Big Brother feeling and oppression that comes through are not new in and of themselves, but to be told this way in this world showcased those themes in a different light. It was really well done.
I do want to come back to the art, again, because there is one other detraction that thought about a lot while reading this book: how exactly does the paint do its thing? It is sort of kind of explained, but not in super detail. It bothered me for parts of the story, because I could not stop thinking about it and I felt distracted by that. Most of the time I want the magic in my stories spelled out right down to the sub-atomic particle. Not everyone wants that, though, and I do think that vagueness is supposed to be part of mysticism of the events. So, that is clearly a me thing.
I want to say one non-spoilery thing about the ending: I was smiling ear-to-ear. I found it to be surprising and whimsical, which I thorouglhly enjoyed.
Phoenix Extravagant is an enjoyable read. The themes of human connection, oppression, and government authoritarianism reflect issues we face in today’s world, and this story speaks on those topics from a unique and interesting perspective. The characters were interesting and easy to connect with, as well, and I liked Lee’s writing quite a bit. I do recommend this book for those looking to read something with a fresh take. I especially recommend if art and painting are your thing, as I think those inclined as such will enjoy those bits immensely.