SILVER PHOENIX and FURY OF THE PHOENIX by Cindy Pon
‘The eunuchs said the windows were ceiling height to allow the concubines their privacy, but Jin Lian knew it was also a way to keep them trapped. These quarters had walls taller than any courtyard tree. No one could survive the drop to the other side. Not that any concubine in possession of her wits would ever attempt to escape the Palace—or her duties to the Emperor.’
The first paragraph of the prologue of SILVER PHOENIX may make the average modern first-world female reader rock back on her heels slightly. Jin Lian’s baby is born—and smuggled out of the palace immediately, the same night he is born, because he is clearly mixed race: and therefore clearly not the Emperor’s son.
At the beginning of chapter one, seventeen-year-old Ai Ling has been given The Book of Making by her beloved mother—which is a book on how to, ahem, please your husband. ‘. . . she wasn’t prepared for a betrothal so soon. She would be given away, traded off like cattle, fortunate to see her parents perhaps once a year—if her future mother-in-law allowed it.’
The betrothal doesn’t happen. ‘She fought the shame mingled with anger that filled her . . . Gossip would follow, for an unmarriageable daughter was a bad daughter.’ But what was the old scandal that Lady Wong referred to: ‘“I’m concerned about your family’s reputation, Master Wen. . . . Weren’t you thrown out of the Emperor’s court in disgrace?’ Ai Ling knows this is nonsense; her father is a scholar, and the most honourable of men. But the reader thinks with a small shock, Master Wen? It was a Master Wen whom Jin Lian asked for help.
A few months later, without warning and without explanation, Ai Ling’s father declares that he must return to the palace. “‘It shouldn’t take more than two months.’”
But he doesn’t come home. He doesn’t come home, he sends no word, and Ai Ling and her mother are running out of money. And then, because they are vulnerable and Ai Ling is pretty, a local merchant offers to take Ai Ling as his fourth wife—as the payment for a debt he claims Ai Ling’s father owes him—and he has forged a document to support his lie.
And Ai Ling decides that the only thing she can do is run away—run away from the little provincial town she has lived all her life, and try to go to the palace herself, and find her father.
There have been a few eerie hints in the first thirty pages of SILVER PHOENIX; Ai Ling seems to hear the thoughts of both Lady Wong and the repulsive merchant, and her father, before he leaves, gives her a jade pendant that was given to him by a monk: “‘He told me to give it to my daughter, if I should ever leave her side for long. . . . But when I said I had no daughter, he merely waved me away.’” But at her first stop, after walking all night and sleeping most of the day, Ai Ling is eating dumplings at a restaurant and watches a woman singing to a group of enthralled men: ‘ . . . Then she noticed the woman’s top was sheer, very clearly revealing three breasts. . . . A Life Seeker . . . [Ai Ling] remembered the drawing from The Book of the Dead. . . . Emperor Shen of the Lu Dynasty issued a mandate which forced all Life Seekers to wear sheer tops, denying them the right to bind their breasts, and therefore baring their identity to the world. It served as a warning for most, but an enticement for some. . . . It was as if she held the book in front of her. . . . Legend has it that the extra breast was given to replace the heart she does not have. The creature is not mortal and maintains life through copulation with men. . . .’ In the Life Seeker’s audience is the merchant Ai Ling is escaping; and as Ai Ling flees, another man grabs her—and her jade pendant flares white and hot, and suddenly her assailant is himself attacked by wasps. Two pages later she’s dragged into a lake: ‘The sinister thing writhed, like a massive eel, its body as thick as a man’s, its length endless. Luminous eyes, glowing emeralds, stared at her, unblinking. . . .Ai Ling. Your family is in ruins because of you. . . . Your mother has not stopped weeping since you left. . . .’ Her pendant flares again, giving her air to breathe, but it cannot stop the awful visions the monster sends: ‘Your father is dead. Go home. . . . The muscular tail squeezed tighter, smothering the precious air she had been given. It crushed her until she was nothing. Nothing but darkness and hot salty tears.’
Yowzah. And it goes on like this for . . . over six hundred pages.
There’s very little I can tell you about the plot that isn’t some kind of spoiler—or at least the best parts are all spoilery, and the story is such a great ride I’m going to leave it alone.* Wait, here’s an excerpt from the back of the hardback of SILVER PHOENIX: ‘Her spirit surged. She concentrated on the immense cadaverous heart, focused her grief and ire. What she could heal, she could also destroy. Her spirit whirled around it in a frenzy. The heart erupted and splattered. The beast howled once before it fell to its knees. It toppled, nearly pinning Chen Yong beneath its rotten bulk. . . .’** Oh, Chen Yong is the handsome young man who saved her from the lake monster. Speaking of meeting cute. Shall I mention that he’s mixed-race—in a country where this is unusual? And that he’s also on his way to the palace in the hopes of unravelling the mystery of his birth?
What caught and held me is the combination of the unambiguous Girl-Who-Does-Things adventure, especially Girl-from-Female-Oppressing-Society-Doing-Things-Anyway adventure (and from that last snippet you’ll have gathered that Ai Ling turns out to have some fairly exotic powers), with the splendidly lush background. I don’t know how much of it is Chinese legendary history and how much is Pon’s own imagination, but it’s a lively mix. And the very best part is the food.*** There’s an ongoing joke about Ai Ling being hungry all the time, but these books made me hungry all the time: ‘They ate the tricolored flower—named for the pale chestnut, red date, and purple yam layered into the sweet sticky rice, steamed in a flower-shaped bowl . . . Oh, the braised pork with rice is my favourite. With a tea-stewed egg. . . . roasted pheasant, tender spring vegetables, hand-pulled longevity noodles, spotted porcelain river crabs, and emperor lobsters, named for their large size . . . Breakfast was hot rice porridge with salted fish, pickled carrots, and spicy bean curd. . . . The steamed silk-thread bread was light and slightly sweet. This was paired with cold spiced lotus roots and bean curd mixed with a savory minced pork sauce. . . .’ Sometimes things are just like food: ‘The plum blossoms emerged early in the front courtyard, their delicate pink petals scented like rice tea.’
SILVER PHOENIX came out in 2009; according to the ARC, FURY OF THE PHOENIX is coming out next month—April 2011. What are you waiting for?
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* There’s one thing I’m trying to figure out how to mention without giving anything away. The story arc over the two books is . . . kind of curly. There’s a fantastic climax at the end of the first, and when it turns out the second has alternating chapters that include a long complicated flashback concerning the first book’s chief villain, I thought, this will never work. Wrong. I liked the second one even better.^
^ Except. . . . I should probably keep my mouth shut but it’s so . . . I loved the jacket of the first one—I have the first edition of the Greenwillow hardback. It has a gorgeous Chinese girl in a great PINK robe+ against a light, bright background with glimpses of a Chinese-y dragon and a building with curly corners++. The second one . . . has a murky standard-Western-teenage-girl face only half visible in the darkness and pretty much no character of any sort. What I’ve got is only the ARC, however, so maybe they’ve done something more interesting for the final book. I hope so.
+ The colour has no bearing on my aesthetic appreciation of course.
++ Which I thought was Japanese, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination in the Far East.
** Or if you prefer: ‘Taking a deep breath, Ai Ling vaulted through the air and plunged her dagger into the back of the serpent’s head. The sharp blade sank in to the hilt, and there was a sizzling sound, reminding her of meats spitting above hot coals at the market. She tried to pull out the dagger to strike again but could not budge its glowing hilt, burning cold within her hand. The demon shrieked and slammed its tail on the ground . . . Chen Yong jumped forward and sank his sword into the thick body, right below its human face. The demon hissed and bucked as blood the color of pitch flowed from the wound. . . .’ There’s some fairly graphic ick in these books, but it seems to me to fit the telling.
*** I also admired Pons’ straightforwardness about sex; that first chapter where Ai Ling is embarrassed by The Book of Making is a fair indication: sex, not swoony romance, is an important component in human life, and Pons treats it as such. A lot of the engaging 3D quality of this book is that food, sex, and slicing up demons all get honest treatment.
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