An exuberantly inventive YA fantasy novel set in a China more mythic than historical.

The back cover compares it to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it has much more in common with the pell-mell action and flamboyant fantasy of films like Swordsman II (in which Brigitte Lin plays the Invincible Asia, a eunuch whose magic laser beams level mountains), The Bride With White Hair (in which Brigitte Lin was literally raised by wolves, and the villains are incestuous conjoined twins), and A Chinese Ghost Story (which makes up for its lack of Brigitte Lin with haunted tentacle trees).

Silver Phoenix lacks tentacle trees and conjoined twins. It does, however, have eyeball trees, triple-breasted succubi, flying machines, serpent-women, a pond of pregnancy, and a telepathic heroine. And more! Much more! Much, much, much more! A scene in which the perpetually hungry heroine, Ai Ling, is about to sit down to a meal of roast duck when she’s attacked by a pair of worm-haired fiends is absolutely typical of the novel’s action-packed, everything plus the kitchen sink sensibility.

When teenage Ai Ling’s gentle bookworm father never returns from a trip to court and a local evil-doer attempts to force her to marry him, she takes off to find her father. She’s promptly attacked by every monster in China (there’s lots), rescued by a sexy young man with a mysterious past, and develops her growing psychic powers while learning to fend for herself amidst wild adventures taking place everywhere from dumpling joints to Heaven to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams.

This is just as much fun as it sounds. It’s an atmospheric, fast-paced read, full of action and imagery, cool Chinese mythology and delectably described Chinese cooking. While the characterization isn’t terribly deep or unusual, Ai Ling is likable and goes from frequently needing rescue by magic amulet or other deus ex machina to learning to rescue herself and others. The hero, Chen Yong, faces prejudice and exoticising because he’s biracial, and likes to spar shirtless. Yesssss! Spar shirtless some more, Chen Yong!

For a YA novel, it’s quite frank, though not graphic, about sex. (“My manhood may be sitting in a jar, but I can still satisfy you in every way,” an ancient eunuch explains.) I mention this in case you’re planning to buy it for a child you know. I’d recommend it for twelve and up.

The story is complete in one volume, but there is a sequel or prequel planned. I hope it’s a sequel, because the ending as it stands wasn’t sufficiently set up to come across as poignant rather than unsatisfying.

Silver Phoenix would make a good compare-and-contrast reading with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, which also focuses on a young woman who doesn’t fit into her society and has a subplot about the difficulty of romance when one partner is telepathic. Generally, Cashore is better with characterization and angst, and Pon is better with pace and setting. I am amused to note that the male romantic leads in both books have unusually colored eyes.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia
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