When Jebi signs up to take the examination for the Ministry of Art, they expect two things: a job, and for their sister Bongsunga to get really really mad at them. Which she does: The Razanei government oppresses Jebi and Bongsunga’s people, the Hwaguk, and the last thing Bongsunga wants is to see her sibling assimilating. She throws Jebi out, and the next thing they know, they’ve been forcibly recruited to paint the magical sigils that power the Razanei army’s automatons. Most particularly, Jebi has been tasked with finding out what went wrong with the dragon automaton Arazi, which went rogue and slaughtered an entire village during its first test run. As they work, they are closely supervised by an extremely hot master swordswoman named Vei. There are rebels! Jebi steals the dragon and goes on the run! It’s great!
Jebi is a specific type of protagonist that I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but is definitely my cup of tea. In many ways they’re very naive, despite having a sister who’s a freedom fighter. They don’t want to become involved in politics; they don’t feel qualified to be involved in politics; they aren’t any good at doing politics. What they want is to be left alone to do their art. Or as a next-best outcome, they don’t want to be actively contributing to the imprisonment of a sentient being and the destruction of their own culture. But as it turns out, there come times when you have to make a choice — and once Jebi has made theirs, they have to keep making it, or lose everything.
What’s particularly neat about this choice of protagonist is that all the other characters clearly have their own shit going on, and nobody’s clearly in the right. For instance, Jebi doesn’t want to kill people. A perfectly cromulent position! I too do not want to kill people. By contrast, their sister Bongsunga deeply wants the colonizers out, which is also a very cromulent position. Better yet, Yoon Ha Lee has a real gift for imbuing numerous different characters with protagonist energy. Vei, the shatteringly hot swordswoman who Jebi has a crush on, very clearly has her own shit going on, to the point that you could easily see a future book shifting into her POV. Same for Bongsunga. Same even for minor characters, like Vei’s parents — despite their relatively small amount of screen time, you’re so aware that these are not just satellites for the characters we actually care about. They’re all people who have their own stories and their own lives.
Speaking of characters with real protagonist energy, I absolutely loved the dragon automaton. Its name is Arazi and it acquires a telepathic connection with Jebi and I am here for it. I know that I have spent the years since the Heralds of Valdemar books trying to play like I’m too cool for telepathic connections with supernatural creatures, but the fact is that I am not now and never have been too cool for it. (See also: The Bone Shard’s Daughter.) And like, how refreshing that Yoon Ha Lee is not too cool for it either, despite being a very deeply cool writer. (See also: Nicefox Gambit et seq.) Arazi is a tremendously sweet and great character. It’s very very very smart (and in different ways than a human is smart!), but also in many ways a little innocent. I adored it.
If I had to register a complaint about the book, I guess it’s reasonable to say that Jebi’s crush on Vei progressed a little fast once things got going. The transition from “chill boning” to “I would bathe in the blood of your enemies for you” happened kind of fast, but you know what? I don’t care! These are hard times, and I love an artist one / murder one romance, and Vei is very hot and Jebi has a dragon ally, so it is no surprise they were so into each other. So there! I loved it! I would read a whole other book that was just Jebi and Vei and Arazi flying around the world doing stuff. Maybe petty crimes / acts of sabotage against the Razanei regime? Petty crimes, but for justice? I’d read it.
Basically, I’m thrilled to have this new standalone fantasy novel from Yoon Ha Lee. The magic system is very cool but not nearly as difficult to grab onto as the one in Machineries of Empire series, so if you’ve been wanting to try this author but nervous that his books will be too hard to follow, give Phoenix Extravagant a try.
Note: I received a review copy of Phoenix Extravagant from the publisher for review consideration. This has not impacted the contents of my review.