Nikki's Reviews > Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
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Feb 08, 11

bookshelves: children-s-and-ya, fantasy, dragons
Read in July, 2010

Up to a point, this review shouldn't be majorly spoilery about events (although it will be about themes). I'll let you know just before I do the spoilery part.

I had honestly never heard of Cindy Pon until the day before yesterday, and I might not have picked up her book to read even if I had. Mostly because I'm not supposed to be buying new books at the moment, admittedly. But inkstone's post about it, here, a post about the whitewashing of the covers for this book, caught my eye. You can find other links on the matter here, including a place to preview the first seventy pages of the novel.

The story in brief: Silver Phoenix is a book heavily based on Chinese myth and history. The original cover is striking and beautiful, to my mind: it has the protagonist, Ai Ling, front and centre, dressed in a Chinese style. But... the book wasn't selling. This was partly because mainstream bookstores didn't stock it, although I know that this isn't a surprise, at least in the case of Borders. In any case, the publisher, in making the paperback, decided to redo the cover. Now, according to Cindy Pon herself, she totally supports the decision of her publisher, and they are working to include Chinese elements and keep those elements strongly present in the covers. But looking at the covers, which you can see here, I don't see that. I see something that looks a lot more like urban fantasy. That looks like it might be the cover of any number of the YA books I've picked up (and usually, put straight back down again with a sigh). Her clothing, the little we can see of her face... she looks more like me than she looks like the original vision of Ai Ling.

In any case, in all this discussion, I got interested in the book and bought it -- the hardcover, with the original artwork. I'm told that this isn't going to help, but I wanted to read this book, and to be able to talk about it, and to have it with the original artwork.

I ordered it, it arrived today, and I finished it just before I started writing this. It's easy to read and very accessible, and the story surprised me in two very major ways and a couple of more minor ones. It really isn't anything like the Generic YA Book my brain conjured up on looking at the new covers. The mythology is somewhat new to me, and it's lovely to wander through a story in which what happens next isn't what I would expect from a typical Western fantasy novel. The plot is bold -- it doesn't shy away from rape and death, from men trying to force young girls to do what they want.

Parts of the plot felt a little thin to me, unfortunately. The sheer onslaught of the demons, and the way Ai Ling's powers quickly develop to handle any problem, are part of that, and also that I didn't feel that the problem, the climax, was quite worth the level of supernatural intervention we were seeing. I didn't feel major peril to the whole land of Xia, only to Ai Ling herself. That part is well written -- tense, a little difficult to read, in the way that it should be -- but it didn't quite seem to fit. And the freedom Ai Ling is given doesn't feel realistic -- although, granted, that's based partially on my own limited and Western understanding of the conditions in China for women in an equivalent sort of time period.

This next bit is spoilery, because I want to talk about the two big surprises and one of the minor ones.

The first surprise: we get to know and like a character who ultimately dies. I was so sure Ai Ling would go through with her plan to bring him back, but she doesn't. I think that's great. A touch of realism. Acceptance that you have to let someone go -- no matter how much you like them.

The second surprise: the potential love interests do not fall into each other's arms at the end. I expected it all along and was glad when it didn't happen. It's different.

The minor surprise of most note: Ai Ling loves to eat. Here is a girl who thinks food is important, who enjoys eating. I don't know to what extent the attitude is reflected in YA, but the girls I knew at the age of seventeen were all about being thin. Open enjoyment of food... well. Not really the done thing. But here is Ai Ling, enjoying food! It made me smile so much.

Overall, it was a story I enjoyed. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, the mythology, the clear and easy prose style. It isn't my top recommendation of this year, or anything like that, but it's a solid and entertaining story, and if this review has intrigued you in any way, I hope you'll pick it up.

08/02/2011: An edit to add in a couple of links! A critique of the 'feminism' of this book, and a critique of the writing and plotting. (Both are very negative toward the book; interesting reading, even if you enjoyed it -- perhaps especially if you enjoyed it, as you have to re-examine your feelings on the topic.)
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Nikki Well, I know a Borders employee who told me that in the US, Borders passes over most debut YA authors unless they're sure it'll sell. They were struggling in the UK and have had to close all the stores here (sadly, since I loved Borders: in Cardiff they did have both a good fantasy section and a decent YA section), and they're not doing much better in the US. I don't know what the story with the other stores is: possibly similar.

I really enjoyed it! Not in the sense that I think it's going to stay in my mind (other than because of the covers debacle) and haunt me, but in the sense that I read it quickly and was delighted by a lot of what I read. I hope you do get hold of a copy, and that you enjoy it.


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