Monday, March 29, 2021

Review of Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

A few years ago media hype grabbed me and I purchased Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. Dense diction and subtle theme, Lee seemed to want to write New Wave-esque space opera. Though perhaps a little too ambitious, I nevertheless tucked Lee away in memory as a writer with potential, and in the time since have encountered a couple of their short stories which delivered on the hope. Thus, when seeing a new novel come available in 2020, Phoenix Extravagant, I bought it sight almost unseen. Hmm…

But before the questions, Phoenix Extravagant is the story of the artist Jebi, and their quest for personal value living among a culture oppressive to their own. A Hwaguk surrounded by Razanei, Jebi learns the Razanei language and takes on the nationality in an attempt to become a renowned painter. Things not going as planned, however, Jebi ends up at a threatening, exploitative job—but with access to one of the most amazing pieces of tech the world has ever seen. Powered by art, Jebi is put to work by the oppressive Razanei, but not forever…

My impression of the first third of Phoenix Extravagant is YA, such is the general tone. Jebi’s age is never directly stated, but clearly they are younger than older, and the prose and story are basic, straight-forward, with nothing requiring a dictionary or hashing out. But the biggest indicator is how immature Jebi seems to be. Nothing directly stated, their relative youth is nevertheless a mood coloring the whole, a mindset rooted in youthful thinking. It was thus a surprise to me that as events moved forward, certain adult scenes indicated the book was not YA, giving me mixed feelings.

Beyond inconsistency in tone, likewise presentation in Phoenix Extravagant is not to be recommended. The prose unadorned, it moves here, then there with little if any style or richness. ‘Plain’ is the word I would use to describe the diction. Worse yet, the story lacks self-awareness at times. For example, there is a tense scene in which Jebi is captive and tied, but being helped by a friend. There is a bit of inner dialogue about BDSM, followed by a statement about the lack of sexual feelings toward the friend due to the intensity of the situation. One or two sentences later, however, Jebi talks about sexual feelings. Not only does this oscillation not help the reader trust Lee’s voice, it deflates the intensity of the scene by pulling the reader’s attention away from the immediate threat to Jebi. What could have been focused and thrilling becomes somewhat muddled—just like “somewhat muddled”.

A level deeper, Lee’s technique often lacks the basics of decent writing—foreshadowing, scene setting, and the like. One of the most frustrating things, for example, is the romance which develops. Lacking any motivation, two characters just fall into one another’s arms. There is little, save juvenile glances and a couple passing thoughts, that lead up to the passionate moment. Yet it’s clear the reader is supposed to believe it is profound love. And there are other such examples of poorly motivated actions, resulting in things seeming to happen more randomly than with focused purpose or interest. Lee not entirely unaware, there are moments which show elements of good storytelling. The first sword dueling scene, for example, has a backdrop, and is all the more exciting for the single slash of red which results.

I ordinarily do not mention the details of character orientation—religious, sexual, gender, etc.—unless it has some bearing on theme. But in this case it’s worth an exception. In Phoenix Extravagant, Jebi goes by ‘they’, and all its grammatical permutations. It’s initially jarring to the mental ear, the brain constantly jumping to plural when in fact the reference is only Jebi. But with repetition, the brain becomes accustomed. With reference to specific body parts lacking, Jebi becomes unisex in the mind’s eye. They also become mysterious for it—the human brain accustomed to looking for gender signs but not getting any. Paralleling this distance is Jebi’s limited cognizance, or at least presentation of, emotion. Lee moves Jebi through the liminal zone between IQ and EQ, but the predominant stance is on the side of IQ. The majority interpreted through action rather than thought or feeling, Jebi is a difficult character to get close to—despite their story being the theoretical engine of the novel.

I’ve been fairly negative thus far about Phoenix Extravagant, and it’s because I don’t have a lot of positives to share. There are moments and scenes that have a splash of color which help the novel get by. There is a large plot device/character which is deployed in interesting, atypical fashion. But due to the aforementioned challenges, Jebi’s tale does not become immersive storytelling. It’s average at best, which is a disappointment; the novel’s singular elements had more potential than were realized. A touch more descriptive prose and a bit deeper look into Jebi’s feelings would have likely pushed the novel into satisfying territory. I appreciate that Lee was able to use writing technique to make me think about gender, I only wish that technique had likewise been applied to enhance storytelling.

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