Yoon Ha Lee’s intensely science fiction Machineries of Empire series delivered some of the most engagingly mind-bending space opera of the last few years. The universe he created in that series was loosely based on Korean mythology and history. His latest book, a switch to more fantasy-style, is more heavily referential of Korean history and in particular, the occupation of Korea by Japan. The story is set in the Hwaguk (ie Korean) peninsula (now called Administrative Territory Fourteen), which is under the control of the Razanei (ie Japanese) occupation. Hwaguk has a large neighbour to the north (ie China) and there are rumours of “Westerners”, although the main character knows little beyond his own country. While this is a fantasy novel, not a history lesson, the parallels and Lee’s intention in using this setting are interesting to consider.
The book centres around Jebi, an artist, who at the beginning is seeking to ingratiate himself with the Razanei much to his revolutionary sister Bongsunga’s disgust. Somehow he ends up working in a secret military base as artists are required to draw the glyphs that, using magical paints, power and control the Razanei automata. Automata have not replaced people but make up part of the army and do many repetitive chores. While most look human, the Razanei have also created a dragon automaton that reputedly went crazy when tested and wiped out a village. Jebi’s task is to find the right combination of glyphs that will bring the dragon under control. Things get complicated when Jebi ends up in a relationship with one of his captors, the half-Hwaguk duelist Vei, and then learns how to use glyphs to communicate with the dragon.
Despite being filled with automata and magic paints and a nascent revolution, there is a simplicity to this tale that is surprising after the complexity and nuance of the Machineries of Empire series. There are twists here but most readers will see them coming from miles away. The story itself is pretty straight forward and predictable, reflecting a range of similar stories of revolutionaries armed with a little magic against a superior force, with very much a Star Wars feel in the final battle. Lee also takes plenty of short cuts with the world building, for example Jebi learns the rules of the magic paints with very little effort or explanation.
Jebi is an engaging main character who keeps a positive attitude even when things get dark (at one point Jebi is imprisoned and uses the mud on the floor to paint a mural on the three walls of their cell). And less unusual these days, Jebi is non-binary in a culture that accepts that orientation. It would be good if authors could find pronouns for non-binary characters that are not the plural “they” as its use creates some grammatical and cognitive hurdles. Also enjoyable is the magically powered robot dragon Azari and his growing relationship with Jebi.
Phoenix Extravagant is definitely a change of pace for Yoon Ha Lee. In some ways it feels like a less polished work, possibly dusted off after the success of the Machineries of Empire series. Lee once again draws on Korean history and mythology to deliver something that goes beyond western fantasy traditions. Phoenix Extravagant is a well written and pacey, if fairly straightforward tale that relies on some well worn storytelling tropes anchored by a cast of engaging characters. While it can be read as a standalone and may be intended as such, the ending leaves the story deliberately open to a broadening of this world.