Author: Cindy Pon
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: April 2009
Hardcover: 352 Pages
No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.
But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.
Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.
It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help . . . and perhaps more.
Stand alone or series: Can be read as a stand alone, but I believe is the first book in a planned series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I bought Silver Phoenix quite a while back, ever since I saw the cover and read the outstanding reviews (starred Booklist). I feel like there’s a dearth of people of color in fantasy, especially in the YA arena, so when I learned of Silver Phoenix and its realm of Chinese fantasy, I was immediately interested. Finally, months later, I had a lull in my “required reading” and could pick this one up!
Ai Ling is the daughter of a strange match in Xia – her father, a former trusted advisor to the Emperor found and married his wife (Ai Ling’s mother) after being dispelled from the palace. Theirs was a marriage of love, and they raised their only child, Ai Ling, in a home of openness and doting indulgence. When Ai Ling reaches a marriageable age, her parents try to set her up with a good, upward match – but after being publicly rejected by a young would-be suitor at the order of his pernicious mother, Ai Ling finds herself without any offers and without any prospects for marriage. This wouldn’t bother her as she didn’t want to be forced into a loveless marriage, but bringing shame to her already tenuously positioned family weighs on Ai Ling. When her father is summoned to the Imperial Palace for an unknown reason, the months pass without word from him and money dwindles. When Ai Ling’s family is threatened by a greedy lord claiming that her father owes him vast sums of money (and looking for another wife in Ai Ling to settle the debt), she decides that she has no choice but to journey to the Imperial City and find her father. The long road is a hard journey for a young girl on her own – but luckily Ai Ling teams up with a strange young man named Chen Young, out on a mission of his own. As the dangers mount, it becomes clear that Ai Ling is the target of all kinds of dangerous creatures, demons and monsters – and that she herself has powers she cannot quite explain. Her destiny leads her to the Imperial City, to a past she cannot remember, and a father she must save from a most dangerous, ageless enemy.
Silver Phoenix is Cindy Pon’s debut novel – a young adult quest fantasy set against a lush, ancient China-inspired backdrop. Easily, the best part of this novel is Ms. Pon’s superb worldbuilding. Ai Ling’s home of Xia is described beautifully, from the delectable smells and texture of fresh pork dumplings, to the cold terror of human-headed serpent demons. I loved every aspect of Xia, from the myths, demons and legends detailed throughout – it’s refreshing to see some variation from the standard western European mold for fantasy. Plus, Ms. Pon clearly has done her research and Ai Ling’s world never feels artificial or forced – Xia is a living, breathing place, with customs and beliefs that feel wholly genuine, if different. While I did love the setting and Ms. Pon’s descriptions, the general plotting and writing did leave something to be desired. Basically, Silver Phoenix is an adventure-quest, in which the protagonists face danger as they make their way to their ultimate destination. There is a hidden villain that is behind all the attacks on Ai Ling and her companions, however, this threat isn’t very focused, the villain barely developed. Everything ties together by the end of the book, but this lack of a pointed cohesion was a definite hinderance; there are almost too many disparate conflicts (Ai Ling’s quest for her father, Chen Yong’s search for his birth parents, a sidetrip to a magical kingdom, a twisted love story, demonic possession, etc). Also, as a matter of personal taste, there was too much of a focus on the minutiae in Silver Phoenix – it seems like Ai Ling is in a constant state of sleeping and eating (or worrying about sleeping and eating).
In terms of characters, I had some mixed emotions. Ai Ling is a suitably believable young heroine, afraid for her family and grappling with new, unreal powers. But…at the same time, there wasn’t anything really new or remarkable about Ai Ling. She’s a seemingly ordinary girl that discovers she has extraordinary powers and a singular destiny – you know, the usual spiel. Chen Yong, as Ai Ling’s partner on the road is also a suitably believable character with his own solemn mission, but again it feels very convenient and well-trod territory. Really – what are the chances that an innocent young girl is saved by a hot, noble young male on the oh-so-dangerous road? (Of course, that’s probably more of my own personal reader fatigue and not everyone will feel this way.) But, while these characters were less-than inspired, I must say that I *loved* the idea of the Silver Phoenix (the titled character of the book), and how I wish I knew more of her story, as opposed to Ai Ling’s. But, perhaps that is fodder for a future story.
And, while we’re on characters and the obligatory romance angle, I should also say that I loved that Ms. Pon isn’t one to rush or force things with her characters. I loved that Silver Phoenix does not end on that predictable, sappy Happily Ever After note – the romance is not yet fulfilled. This, in addition to the outstanding worldbuilding, is more than enough to make me stick around for the next book in the series.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Thanks to Harper Teen’s “Browse Inside” feature, you can read the first SEVENTY pages of Silver Phoenix online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: I’m a sucker for Asian-inspired fantasy novels, both adult and YA. If you liked Silver Phoenix and want more, here are some of my own personal favorites:
Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is similar in setting to Silver Phoenix and one of my notable reads from 2009 – I cannot wait for Eona soon! For an older, Japanese-inspired fantasy, I highly recommend Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor – book one in what is now the five-book Tales of the Otori series. **Warning: this is not a series for the weak of heart. By the final book, I was in tears, and I’m not an easy crier.**
And of course, there’s the new Chinese-inspired fantasy novel from the prolific Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, which I do plan on reviewing very soon:
In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.
Inspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece.
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father’s last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.
Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already…
Verdict: Good, but not quite great, the most memorable thing about Silver Phoenix is its titled character and superb worldbuilding. While there is a degree of predictability and a sense of “been there, done that” with regards to the standard plot and tropes, Ms. Pon’s elegant worldbuilding and the surprisingly non-cliched ending has me eager for more. Recommended.
Rating: 6 – Good with potential for so much more
Reading Next: Sapphique by Catherine Fisher