Summary: 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.
Thoughts: This is a book I meant to read years ago, and one that I believe first came to my attention when complaints started circulating about the change to the cover art for the paperback release, switching from a bright and vibrant image with an obviously Chinese woman front and centre, to a very uninspired image of a woman of unknown ethnicity, wearing clothes of undefinable style and origin, and with half her face hidden in the shadows. I know the adage is to not judge a book by its cover, but cover art is often one of the first things a person sees, it’s meant to attract attention and draw a potential reader in, and for my part, had I not seen the original cover art first, I would have utterly overlooked Silver Phoenix because nothing about the new cover said anything to me beyond, “probably a YA romance maybe?”
Cover art aside, though, how is the novel itself?
Silver Phoenix is written from the perspective of Ai Ling, a young woman from the kingdom of Xia, whose father leaves for a journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams and then doesn’t return when he is meant to. Already feeling herself a burden to her family, and worrying that being married off to an old lecherous man is in the future, Ai Ling sets off on a journey to bring her father back, leaving him to escape her prior fate and to carve herself a new one. The problem is that demons and monsters seem to be following her wherever she goes, putting her and her eventual travel companions at great risk, though she can’t fathom why she would be targeted so. Some greater force is at play, and Ai Ling needs to get to the bottom of it and find her father before something truly terrible happens.
Ai Ling is very much one of those characters who could be described as “not like other girls.” She can read in a time and place where most women can’t. She’s willful and proud, not accepting the place that society tells her she ought to want, especially in matters of marriage. Her parents were a love match, and she’d like the same for herself. And while I know the “not like other girls” stereotype is often a disliked one (I’m not that fond of it a lot of the time either), Ai Ling is much easier to read than many of the characters I’ve encountered in the past who fit the same trope. Quite possibly because a number of those characters seem to be very brash and in-your-face about how different they are, and Ai Ling doesn’t do that. She’s just very much herself, and that’s enough. She never states herself to not be like other girls as though it’s automatically a positive thing to be different than your peers (for one thing, that does quite a disservice to anyone who does like more traditionally feminine things and enjoys being female within society’s gender role; the “not like other girls” trope usually declares traditional femininity to be bad and something to break away from in order to be worthy of greatness, or just worthy in general. So while Ai Ling definitely hit a number of points on a checklist, it wasn’t in an obnoxious way, and I can appreciate that.
Reading Silver Phoenix felt very much like reading an expanded legend. Ai Ling’s journey to find and rescue her father started out with simple, if lofty, goals, and over time involved all sorts of otherworldly encounters, starting with sightings and attacks by demons and at one point, actually entering another realm entirely, passing through the homes of many non-human people, encountering deities and wondrous animals and food beyond human experience. It felt like an epic tale that hit all the right spots to be a modern legend in its own right, pulling from many aspects of mythology and folklore and tradition while also being its own unique thing. Ai Ling’s changes so much on her journey, with each new encounter bringing her information that calls into questions what she knew of the world, her family, and herself. At the end, she is a changed person, having walked through fire to save her loved ones and the veil being lifted from her eyes.
The book is generally very well paced, though there were a few things that seemed to start and then end without any real resolution. The main thing that springs to mind is after the death of Li Rong, when Ai Ling vows to revive him even though doing so is dark and dangerous. She starts gathering what she needs, she remembers her task every now and again, and things around her change in response to her goal, but never in a way that really causes consequence, and she abandons the plan before ever really getting further into it than she started. So what might have been an interesting subplot in which Ai Ling’s luck and aid could have abandoned her at a crucial moment or Li Rong could have come back terribly and forced a confrontation between Ai Ling and Chen Yong, it just… goes nowhere. Which left me wondering why those pieces were still part of the story.
Now, the book does have a sequel which I haven’t read yet, so it may well be that it was all setup for something that happens later on. But within the context of Silver Phoenix on its own, that subplot felt like something that was initially planned to go further and got cut, but the cutting wasn’t complete. It was odd.
Still, the story was a true delight to read, and I was entertained right from the get go. It scratched an itch for something new in my reading, at least new-to-me, that gave me something different than many of the other options on my shelves right now. It was what I needed right when I needed it, an epic journey of loyalty and discovery that I was glad to be able to read. If you’re a fan of YA fantasy, especially of fantasy with deep inspirations beyond “vaguely medieval European,” then Silver Phoenix is a novel you shouldn’t miss.