Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Ai Ling’s father is summoned to the Palace. He estimates it will take two months to reach the Palace, then return home. But more than seven months pass without word from him, the family’s finances are strained, and a wealthy but slimy older merchant is determined to use her father’s absence to marry Ai Ling. Instead, Ai Ling escapes his clutches, determined to reach the Palace and to discover what happened to her father.
Ai Ling expects the journey to be dangerous. After all, she is a young, unmarried girl of good family in a society that expects them to stay at home with their parents. But the journey is more treacherous than she had ever imagined, for there are strange creatures and beings she never knew existed trying to stop her.
The first thing that struck me about Silver Phoenix (okay, besides the cover and the fact that the prologue is basically a childbirth scene, so maybe this was actually the third thing to strike me) was the voice and style Cindy Pon uses to tell this story. It’s sensuous, with lines like,
She fought to quell her trembling as Liao Kang stepped forward and extended his hand. He was a bamboo of a boy, the barely green type, with large almond eyes in a pale face. (p. 5 of ARC; all quotes hereafter also from ARC)
She paused and lifted her elegant head to admire the moon. Ai Ling felt her sorrow, smothering the exquisite scent of jasmine, dimming the starlight above. (p. 18)
A small breeze rustled the grass. It undulated like waves, carrying the scent of burned rice fields. (p. 331)
I’m usually a pretty fast reader, but the combination of the vivid imagery and deliberate pacing made me slow down and savor the writing. This is not to say that the story is slow, because it’s not. There is action and intrigue, and though Silver Phoenix read to me as utilizing Western fantasy tropes in a distinctly East Asian setting, I also never knew where the story would go next. The worldbuilding is fantastic, richly realized and helped, no doubt, by Pon’s prose. Because of its Chinese roots, the fantasy world will seem very fresh to most readers, but it never overwhelms Ai Ling’s story, never slows down the momentum of the story.
If I have a few criticisms, they are minor ones overall. I found some of Ai Ling’s escapes and newfound abilities to sometimes be too convenient, and the ending of the novel is abrupt, begging for a sequel, instead of being a completely satisfying, self-contained whole on its own. I also occasionally wondered about the likelihood of a girl of Ai Ling’s class leaving home to escape marriage and set off on a quest, regardless of the implications to her family’s honor and face, but, well, if Mulan can do something like it, I suppose Ai Ling can, too. And truthfully, it was easy to suspend my disbelief, to allow myself to be drawn into the world Cindy Pon created.
Silver Phoenix will be published on April 28, 2009.