It’s about a nonbinary painter teaming up with a pacifist mecha dragon against an evil empire…

Phoenix Extravagant
by Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.
One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

From the book blurb

My first thought was that this was inspired by China, maybe HongKong, but I adjusted that thought to Korea, after having come across a Kimchi pot. And that turned out to be right, when I looked up the author‘s website.

It’s about a nonbinary painter teaming up with a pacifist mecha dragon against an evil empire (as one does), and it takes place in a magical version of Korea during the Japanese occupation.

I liked the setting of a magical realm based on real countries. The „depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes“ weren‘t quite as horrifying as I had expected. Ok, the creation of the pigments was a little horrifying, if you have an appreciation of art.

Fascinating dragon. I would have loved for Arazi’s character to have been developed more deeply. Alas, with the story told purely from Jebi‘s POV, that wasn‘t possible. I would also have liked to see more of Jebi’s particular brand of magic. And to have seen Jebi setting other automatons free. It almost looked as if they would do it once or twice…

Neither the conquered Hwaguk or the Razanei were purely black or white, there were nuances that kept it multifaceted. The characters were depicted with enough depth to make them feel real. It didn‘t make it easier to like one or dislike the other. No cardboard cutouts in this novel. Bongsunga and Hak were prime examples of that dichotomy.

I enjoyed the light romance. Vei was my favourite character. And her family were great side characters. Jebi wasn‘t the smartest or most aware cookie. I think some might find Jebi annoying in their ineptness and rather unpolitical stance regarding the conflict in their country. The childlike naivety was rather charming for me.

So there is plenty of potential for a possible sequel. Fingers crossed. Which I would read, although it took me a good while to get through this book. I enjoyed the writing, it just wasn‘t compelling enough to drag me through the story at a higher speed. Despite the plot it was a rather chilled affair for me.

I received this free e-copy from the publisher/author via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review, thank you! I am late, I know, I know….

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