Author: Beth Bernobich
Genre: Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: October 2011
Hardcover: 336 pages
Once upon a time, the king of Lóng City held a contest for a lot of money and the princess’s hand in marriage. Kai and his friend won the money but not the princess, which was fine with everyone. But nothing has turned out as Kai expected. His gang has split up. His best friend isn’t talking to him. And he’s stuck working for his mother in her tutoring shop for conjuration and mathematics. Then the king falls deathly ill and no one can reach Princess Lian who is studying abroad in the Phoenix Empire. So Kai sets off to bring her the news himself.
Fox and Phoenix is a story about what comes after the fairy tale, set in a world of ghost dragons, animal spirit companions, and cell phones that run on magic.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Lóng City series, though the short story “Pig, Crane, Fox” is technically the first story and sets up this book
How did I get this book: ARC from the Author and Publisher
Why did I read this book: I have been a terrible reviewer. I have promised that I would read Beth Bernobich’s debut adult novel Passion Play, but keep putting it off because of the incessant demands of Real Life (I will review it one of these days! I WILL!). So, when Beth Bernobich contacted us with the opportunity to review and host a guest post from her for her new YA novel Fox & Phoenix, I jumped at the chance. A fantasy/speculative fictionish title set in an alternate version of China? How could I possibly say no?
It’s been months since street lord Kai Zou and his second-in-command, Yún Chang, have helped Princess Lian Song Li achieve her heart’s desire and won the prize of favor (and money) from the King of Lóng City…but nothing is going quite the way Kai had hoped. Instead of living a rich, luxurious lifestyle Kai somehow finds himself a failing wizard apprentice to his formidable mother. Instead of enjoying the company of his best friend – who could possibly be more – Yún seems more preoccupied with studying, excelling at the same classes that Kai struggles to keep an interest in. Even when she does deign to spend time with Kai, to him it always seems that she’s more interested in bossing him around and showing him up. When the King of Lóng City is struck deathly ill and Kai’s mother disappears without a word of warning, Kai knows that something terrible is afoot. When the great King of the Ghost Dragons himself tells Kai that he must reach Princess Lian to tell her of her father’s sickness, Kai has no choice but to accept the mission – after all, how often does a King of Ghost Dragons ask or need a mere mortal for help?
Together, Kai and Yún make the dangerous journey to reach the Phoenix Empire and reunite with Lian. Someone is plotting the downfall of the King, and once again, these three unlikely friends – and their Spirit Companion animals – must work together and save the day.
Fox & Phoenix is the first full length book in the Lóng City series, although there is a short story that precedes this volume – and readers that don’t know that might be a little confused by this book. Though the book technically can be read as a stand alone novel, there is some subtext and relationships between characters that is better understood after reading “Pig, Crane, Fox” (which tells the story of the first adventure of Kai, Yún, and Lian). Nevertheless, even without reading the short story first, there is enough detail and supplemented backstory to get readers acquainted at least with the characters, how they have arrived in their current positions, and then of course, the current adventure kicks off. From a pure plotting and storytelling perspective, Fox & Phoenix is a delight for the reader craving action, intrigue, danger, and – thankfully – a dose of well-timed humor.
In addition to the pressing quest to alert Lian of her father’s condition and bring her home to staunch whatever nefarious power machinations that are afoot, Kai and his spirit companion Chen (a smarmy, ethereal pig) also grapple with Kai’s feelings towards Yún (confusing and infuriating for Kai, but ultimately hilarious and endearing for his audience). I loved the relationship between these two characters, and how utterly clueless Kai is towards the girl of his dreams. As a narrator and protagonist, Kai is also endearing in that he knows how to play to other peoples’ expectations – when they look at him, they see a slightly dim Mountain boy who cares more about goofing off than anything else. And, since he actually is quite intelligent (when he puts his mind to it, of course) Kai takes advantage of his innocuous appearance to the fullest. I also adored smart, bossy Yún and her dedication towards her friends, and her decisions not to take Kai’s at times jerky behavior. She’s definitely not just a sidekick or love interest, but rather firmly in the Hermione Granger camp of female companions (aka, awesome). Lian is another strong female character with a more refined edge and the weight of a kingdom – even an Empire – on her young shoulders, which she handles with grace.
The only aspect of Fox & Phoenix that didn’t quite work is the worldbuilding. I love the setting of Lóng City and the Phoenix Empire – Chinese-based fantasy is one of my favorite alternate history settings, period, and Ms. Bernobich does a fantastic job creating a new world with Chinese influences, from nomenclature and character speech to food and setting. I also love the idea of animal spirit companions – Chen, Kai’s pig spirit, is a delight and of course reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s daemons – and the construct of a spirit plane beyond the human realm, which can only be accessed by those with magical capabilities. Where things felt a little shaky to me, however, was in the blend between magic and technology. For all intents and purposes, the Phoenix Empire and Lóng City are historical fantasy locations. There are monarchs, Empererors, peasants, and merchants, all living in a medieval style society. And yet…this society also possesses technological artifacts – like cell phones, television monitors, elevators, and trains – that run on magic (as opposed to electricity or steam). The two elements were never fully reconciled in a convincing way, at least in my mind, so the references to talk phones and vid screens were jarring and threw me out of the story. Magic and technology certainly can coexist and many books have proven that point, however, I simply couldn’t quite believe in it here.
That complaint aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Fox & Phoenix for its strong characters, its fast-paced plotting, and the fantastical setting in an alternate version of China, and I hope to return to Lóng City with Kai, Yún & Lian very soon.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can listen to an excerpt from the audiobook online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: As I’ve mentioned before, Fox & Phoenix is actually the second story (though the first full length novel) set in the world of Lóng City, and continues where “Pig, Crane, Fox” leaves off. Lucky for us, Beth Bernobich has made her short story available – FOR FREE DOWNLOAD! – via Smashwords! Here’s the scoop:
The king of Lóng City has declared a contest—whoever performs three impossible tasks gets to marry his daughter, the Princess Lian, as well as winning a lot of money. Kai the street rat doesn’t want the princess, but he does want the money. Then he finds out the princess has her own ideas about this contest. A short story originally published in Magic in the Mirrorstone.
You can download the story HERE.
Also make sure to check out Beth Bernobich’s guest post to learn more about Lóng City and her inspirations and influences!
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Prospero Regained by L.Jagi Lamplighter
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