Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix

Silver Phoenix is the story of Ai Ling, a strong, independent young woman who leaves her home to both escape an unwanted marriage and to find her missing father. A fantasy in a world based on ancient China, Silver Phoenix is filled with adventure, strange creatures, and great characters. Ai Ling is joined on her adventure by a pair of brothers, the strong, serious Chen Yong and his love-crazed younger brother, Li Rong. I found the three characters to be well-written and distinct individuals.

World building: Unlike most of the fantasy novels I’ve read, Silver Phoenix has an Asian setting. It was a refreshing change from your typical pseudo-European world. It was a great to see characters confronted by new and unique gods, demons, and monsters instead of the standard orcs, elves, and ogres (or variants thereof). I loved the author’s world-building efforts; her descriptions of architecture, food, clothing, and the environment made the world come alive.

Engagement: A very engaging novel, Silver Phoenix definitely keeps the action rolling. It is fast-paced and tightly written. My only serious complaints would be with the rapidity with which Ai Ling’s powers developed and the presence of an overly helpful magic item. Other than that, I found myself engrossed in both the story and the world the author created.

Writing: The author writes very clear, straightforward prose. I enjoyed her style. Silver Phoenix reads like a blend of historical fiction, fairy tale, and fantasy. Having said that, my knowledge of ancient Chinese history is pretty sketchy and the author has clearly stated that Xia is only based on Chinese culture and folklore - it is not supposed to strictly represent China at any particular time period. The novel was, in every way, professionally written.

Impact: Although classified as a young adult novel, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel from an adult perspective. While aimed at a YA audience, some scenes felt very grown up. A few times I felt myself wondering if it was a serious fantasy or a lighter fairy tale. However, these were minor distractions. I loved the characters, there was a lot of action, tension was high throughout, and the world building was outstanding. As soon as I finished Silver Phoenix I immediately downloaded Fury of the Phoenix.

Fury of the Phoenix is the sequel to Silver Phoenix and follows Ai Ling and Chen Yong as they travel to Jiang Dao (Chen Yong’s birth father’s homeland). The novel is split between Ai Ling’s and,unexpectedly, Zong Ye’s perspectives. Zong Ye (the villain of Silver Phoenix) returns in spirit form to haunt Ai Ling. The great thing about the Zong Ye character is that we learn of his origins and he becomes a complete character. In Silver Phoenix he was just “The Bad Guy” and we didn’t know much about him. In Fury of the Phoenix he becomes a real person. Ultimately not a nice one, but a real one. He’s a great character.

Ai Ling spends much of her part of the novel either on board the ship taking her and Chen Yong to Jiang Dao or in in Jiang Dao itself. I have only two minor complaints with the novel and both have to do with setting. The opening scene of the novel has Ai Ling very improbably boarding and stowing away on a sailing vessel (at sea). It is impossible for me to imagine it happening as described and put me off in the first chapter. The second complaint has to do with the country of Jiang Dao. The author states in the afterword that Jiang Dao is not supposed to be Europe. Unfortunately, Xia is so clearly inspired by ancient China that I was constantly attempting to figure out which European country was supposed to be Jiang Dao. Don’t do this. Jiang Dao is a completely fabricated country containing an assortment of elements of European culture.

Here’s the good news: Fury of the Phoenix is excellent! It reads as a straight-up, grown-up fantasy novel and I was completely engaged throughout. The story of Ai Ling and Chen Yong’s journey and relationship was well-written and perfectly paced. Having said that, I was even more engrossed by Zong Ye’s story of his descent into evil. If a major draw of Silver Phoenix was setting and action, the big draw of Fury of the Phoenix is character and discovery (and a great lead-up to a thrilling climax). I highly recommend both books and look forward to the author’s next work.

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