One of the things I always enjoy is having the opportunity to read new authors and novels for the very first time. Last month, for example, I had the chance to read Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee.
Phoenix Extravagant takes place in Hwaguk, a country that is currently under occupation by the Razanei administration. The story follows Gyen Jebi, a twenty-five-year-old Hwagugin painter, whose goal is to find employment at the Ministry of Art.
When Jebi’s name does not appear on the list of new hires after the recent ministry examination, they are devastated by the news. Their jobless situation is only made worse by the fact that they are in debt to a money lender.
Just as they are becoming desperate for work, Jebi receives a surprising offer from the Ministry of Armor, which is in charge of creating and animating the Razanei government’s automaton soldiers. When the Deputy Minister of Armor not only agrees to take care of Jebi’s debt, but to spare their sister (who has connections to a group of Hwagugin rebels) from imprisonment, Jebi has no choice but to take the job.
After all, they are not political…and they do need the work.
That all changes as Jebi begins to learn more about the work that is being done by the Ministry of Armor, and its connection to a recent massacre involving an untested dragon automaton.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Phoenix Extravagant! It was a very fast-paced read, with a lot of action, intrigue, and great characters. I ended up reading the vast majority of the book in a single day because I just could not put it down.
One of the things I found really impressive about the novel was the world that the author created. From his descriptions of Hwagugin traditions and artwork, to the various automatons, to the descriptions of the Ministry of Armor and rebel encampments, Hwaguk feels like a very real and vibrant place.
In all honesty, I haven’t had the opportunity to read many novels that feature non-binary main characters, so I’m by no means an expert on non-binary representation in literature. That being said, I felt that Yoon Ha Lee did a fantastic job with Jebi’s characterization, and in keeping their pronouns consistently non-gendered (using variations of they/them) throughout the novel.
I was also very impressed with the way in which Jebi’s character was developed over the course of the story. Their journey from unemployed artist to government employee, and consequently from apolitical citizen to rebel, is very believable.
I do think it is important to mention that this novel does include some content which might cause discomfort for readers. Specifically, there is a scene of torture.
Whether you are a fan of science fiction, or young adult novels in general, I highly recommend giving Phoenix Extravagant a try. It’s a great book, and one that I think will appeal to both teenage and adult readers.