All Jebi wants to do is keep their head down and paint. That’s it. But navigating under the oppressive thumb of the Razanei who occupied the country of Hwaguk when they were a child, who took their sister’s wife from her in the ensuing war, who make it nearly impossible for a native Hwagukan to make a living… it takes a toll on a person. Even after buying a Razanei name to try to get a better job, Jebi is running out of options. Life doesn’t get any easier when they’re blackmailed into working for the Ministry of Armor, Razanei’s research division for the military. See, they need artists to create new automata, those faceless forces of policing set up wherever the Razanei conquer. And their latest project is so dangerous that Jebi realizes they’ll have to step up or let their country burn.
Phoenix Extravagant, the latest novel from the visionary Yoon Ha Lee, is a standalone novel with worlds of detail, depth, and heart, as one non-binary artist must do their best to use the skills they have to save what they can.
Anyone who’s read any science fiction and fantasy in the last ten years knows the intricate, detailed, and imaginative worldbuilding that is one of the hallmarks of Yoon Ha Lee’s work. Though best known for his Hexarchate stories in recent years, Lee has spent his career creating world after world, rich and layered but never incomprehensible to the reader. More than that, Lee populates his worlds with characters as rich as the cities and starships they inhabit, complex and complicated people whose struggles enhance the worldbuilding of Lee’s stories, each of them occupying multiple spaces of power, hierarchy, knowledge, and class that color their experiences and perspective. It’s this blend of high-octane worldbuilding and character that create the utterly enjoyable blend of story and stakes that is a Yoon Ha Lee novel. With Phoenix Extravagant, his talents are on full display as always, this time examining those caught in the cogs of empire and colonization, between collaboration and revolution, obligations to family and self.
Because while the characters of the Hexarchate were often purposefully embedded deep in the gears of empire, Jebi would rather be anywhere else. They’re an artist who time and again struggles to find meaning and money, drifting from job to job and hoping things get better. They’re pretty much an ordinary person, trying to do their best under the conditions of their life. When push comes to shove, they do what they can to stop something bad from happening, but even then, they don’t have special powers, they don’t have intense training, hell, even the magical paints they use from time to time are just that: tools to aid them. In Jebi, Lee has given readers a protagonist that is ordinary, and makes a difference. While at first they must be pushed a little to act, once they do, they don’t falter. In a time when many feel helpless to affect change, or want to keep their head down, it was a welcome sight to see a protagonist that could rise to the occasion asked of them. And if they can do it, we can, too. Jebi is also an artist through and through; much of their pain throughout the book comes from seeing art, and the identity through that art, lost in service to war or destroyed for horrible reasons. No spoilers here, but Lee makes a pointed statement about the cost of violence and where the power, and reasoning, for that violence comes from.
On that note, I very much enjoyed how in a world so rife with conflict and pain, none of that comes into play when it comes to a character’s queerness. Jebi is non-binary and aside from the one or two people who may not totally understand their identity, no one ever uses it as a reason to hurt, intimidate, or talk down to them. Bongsunga, Jebi’s sister, had a wife that she lost in the war. Another character has three parents, a father and two mothers. None of these are ever used as excuses to hurt or hate others, or remarked on as strange or different. The sheer normalcy of queer people, the spectrum on which they exist, their desires and relationships, and their ability to go about their life without their suffering baked into their day are wonderful and welcome aspects of Phoenix Extravagant.
Where Lee does introduce personal conflict in the novel is centered around one’s national identity, and focuses on an occupied people doing their best to survive, while still celebrating their heritage. Whether they’re caught in the cultural middle trying to live as best as they can in an occupied city without giving up how they were raised, or biracial and trying to navigate living with one foot in two worlds, Phoenix Extravagant finds Lee wrestling with the notions of identity and safety. What it is like to give up or hide part of yourself so you can live without fear? How far is too far before you no longer feel like yourself? What happens when who you are is in direct contradiction to what others expect or need of you? It’s not lost on me just how much of this book centers art, giving a voice to the voiceless, the forms identity, history, and expression can take, and by book’s end, and ultimately, who is left to carry those touchstones of culture into an uncertain future.
Phoenix Extravagant is a rich novel with so much I haven’t even gotten to. You’ll have to open its pages and discover the joy of Arazi the dragon automata searching for their purpose, and Vei the duelist, with her predicaments and responsibilities. And you’ll have to watch with joy as the two of them and Jebi make a family of sorts, bound by art, duty, and identity, each in their own way searching to live free in a world trying to tell them who to be, and free of a war that would crush their individuality. Phoenix Extravagant is another triumph for Lee in every way imaginable, a beautiful, thought-provoking piece of art that others can hopefully use to inspire them when they’re uncertain of who they are, and remind them of what they can do to change the world, one piece of art at a time.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.