Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: Silver Phoenix

As a quick note,  I'm hoping to get two reviews out on each Saturday and Sunday to keep this blog moving along and I have finally caught up to the stuff I was watching/reading over winter break with this book. Although, winter break was three weeks long and I read/watched a lot of stuff during it....

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
 I really like the  bright pink on the cover, it really catches your eye, and yay for an actually Asian model on the cover of an Asian inspired fantasy, but I'm a little puzzled by the rest of the cover. Is she supposed to be wearing a kimono there? Aside from the fact that this book seems to be set in a Chinese inspired world (not Japan), if she is wearing a kimono then it's tied backwards, you know, the way they tie the kimono on dead people. Moving beyond that, the girl's hairstyle confuses me because it was specifically mentioned half a dozen times in the book that unmarried girls wear their hair in one long braid and servant girls wear their hair in two buns, so why does she have both of those hairstyles? Never mind that actually, how does the model have that much hair?!? Sure it's nitpicky but this stuff really does bother me, plus having the author's name and the title of the book in two widely different fonts looks strange and this is coming from someone who doesn't normally care about fonts, I think I like the cover of the paperback edition much better.

Summary: Ai Ling is an oddity since she is 17 years old and still unmarried but she minds this much less than either of her parents do. Her life starts to get a little more abnormal after her father leaves to advise the emperor and doesn't return for months. Facing the prospect of being forced into marriage with an unscrupulous merchant, Ai Ling leaves home for the capital to figure out just what is going on and because even more confused when creatures from the underworld start targeting her with alarming frequency. She finds a friend on the road in Chen Yong, a young man traveling to get away from his home for a bit. And with all the nasties after her Ai Ling is going to need all the help she can get, especially when she sees what fate has in store for her.

The Good: Very nice world building, normally I only come across Asian inspired worlds in anime or manga, I believe the author herself is Asian, so it's always a treat to see an author creating a different kind of world. I've read a little bit of central Asian mythology (fairly sure I read Journey to the West a few years back) and the description of the monsters, heaven, and gods themselves really felt like Chinese mythology to me. Beyond that, there were a number of other little details in the book (clothing, food, fighting) that helped set up a clearly defined and interesting world that also wasn't just a copy of ours.

The Bad: The pacing on this story was waaaay to fast. The book is a good 352 pages long but has enough stuff for a 400+ page book crammed into it. Too much happened in too short of the time and there was no time down time for the reader to connect with the characters. There were a couple of major character deaths but since the story had been paced so fast I didn't feel any connection or emotion over the deaths. The motives of the characters are a bit murky as well, the villain's motives are explained in the end, but very late into the story (heck, the story takes a while to come out and say that yes, there is a central villain responsible for everything). The other characters' reasons for this whole journey could be summed up as "they are the tool of the gods/are tagging along with the tool of the gods." There are ways to do that right (Greek mythology did it right, Megan Whalen Turner's books are pulling this off very well) but here it feels like Pon had a central conflict for the story, had some characters for it but couldn't quite figure out how to connect it all and resorted to "fate said so so just do it" to make it work.

I'm a little conflicted about how I feel on the ending of the book. On the one hand, I found myself going "augghhhh, it's like Kimi ni Todoke!" But, after thinking about it for a while I realized that the ending is actually one I wish more authors would take a risk more often and pull off (it has to do with romance and, if this blog hasn't made it clear already, I'm fairly unromantic). And then found out there is to be a sequel to the story (what about I'm not sure, the conflict was wrapped up in this volume after all) which will probably undo what I did like about this ending and go for a more standard YA ending.

Lastly, when reading this book I was reminded of another book I read this past summer, Gateway by Sharon Shinn. Also an Asian inspired fantasy (although this one was more like Victorian Great Britian except with Chinese trappings instead of British ones) and I think I liked it slightly better, and again I liked parts of the ending for taking a risk and then it did something else that I didn't like after all. So, probably no re-read for either of them and no buys either, but I will check out the Silver Phoenix sequel when it comes out this spring.