Flying with the Phoenix

Jul 23, 2010 | Reviews

Today, I got my copy of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. Got home, did my usual speed reading thing and finished it in two hours flat.
Ai Ling is a young woman in the Kingdom of Xia – an oriental setting that kept bringing to mind images of the Avatar: Last Airbender artistic style – where women are constrained by social norms and generally expected to be seen and not heard. Everything starts going south when her father is called away to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams to do something mysterious with the Emperor, and after being threatened with a little blackmail and other shennanigans, Ai Ling runs away to bring her father home.
The dung then seriously hits the fan as she becomes hunted by demons, and in the course of things she falls in with a young man called Chen Yong, who is trying to find out what happened to his parents. Hijinks ensue, as they say.
Ok, gotta be honest here: I’m a terrible analyst of actual prose, so I’m just going to leave that to one side. I read so fast that single phrases or sentences get blurred into the overall narrative. I’m not all that aware of tone sometimes, and this might affect the stuff I pick up on in a book.
Anyway. Review time!
What I liked most about Silver Phoenix was the setting. It’s a colourful, rich world, with little quirks and nuances that jumped out here and there. I always got the sense that there was much more to all of it than I was being told. Of course, this being a fantasy book, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Cindy Pon has reams of backstory hidden somewhere that we’ll never be privy to. The demons are shockingly scary and horrible, too – maybe a little reminiscent of the oriental ghosts and monsters I’ve read about elsewhere, such as in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG or 3×3 Eyes.
Characters I had a problem with. I kept trying to resolve Ai Ling and Chen Yong and others in my head as I read, but they never truly gelled for me until the second half of the book. It started well enough with Ai Ling, but my vision of her fragmented early on and I couldn’t seem to pull it all back together. Chen Yong was almost a non-entity for a long time there. I found myself asking at one stage, where’s the emotional connection between them? Why are they together? Why do their interactions seem… unreal?
Plot, as well, remained hazy for me. It juddered at the start, going from here to there and although I could see the reasons that this needed to be here or that needed to be there, I couldn’t get into it emotionally. I wasn’t invested in what the characters were doing. Sometimes I wondered what exactly was going on, or I skipped back a page or two to try to get a clear picture of events. Not a good sign, unfortunately.
However, once Ai Ling and Chen Yong learn what’s going on in the second half of the book, everything suddenly comes back into focus. Their characters become more real, the plot falls into place, and the story starts to come into its own. I still found a few hints of haziness, a moment or two where someone would do or say something that didn’t seem right, but the overall quality leaped upwards and continued to climb up to the grand finale in the Palace and onwards. The showdown scene (no spoilers allowed, go get a copy if you want to know!) was not what I expected; powerful, edge-of-your-seat stuff.
…I always feel just a little bit bad when I write a review of a book and I have to say something bad about it. It seems like I’m betraying the author, or something. Hollywood get no such pass, of course, when I review movies – they like to inflict their crap on me, so I don’t feel so guilty about flinging it right back at them. But yeah, authors, I feel kinda bad. Especially when I know my taste is flat out weird.
So – Silver Phoenix? There’s a lot to like about it. The fantastical oriental setting is weird, strange and wonderful. Plot and characterisation are strong when they really come together. But for me, the first half of the book just let everything else down. I think of stories as having a flow, or a rhythm; Silver Phoenix spent far too long being out of time with itself.
The ending was… not unsatisfying, but somehow empty. Like I wanted more, and it wasn’t there. It felt like Chen Yong had gone out of focus again as a character, and this had somehow washed out part of the emotion of the scene. I think if I didn’t know there was a sequel, I would probably have been more than a little disappointed.
Now for the million dollar question: will I buy the next one in the series? I think I will. It’s got a lot of promise, a lot of power as a story, for all that I think it has its faults. Fury of the Phoenix is out sometime in 2011, apparently.
As an aside: good grief, the cover? Changing the obviously Asian girl to an obviously Caucasian one for the paperback?! And that design! I’m a graphic designer and I could do better in my sleep! The original cover was a much stronger effort and far more faithful to the story. God, but it irritates me like nothing on earth to see an author short-changed by a publisher who won’t do justice to a book cover.
Alright. The cat is attacking my feet, so I must go play with her before she turns her attention to my laptop.