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Review: Fury of the Phoenix

Title: Fury of the Phoenix
Author: Cindy Pon ([profile] cindypon)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Asian Fantasy, Folklore
How I got it: personal purchase (via Indiebound)
Where to buy it: From your local indie bookstore; from Powells; from the Book Depository.
In a nutshell: Fury of the Phoenix is the beautiful follow-up to Cindy Pon's debut novel Silver Phoenix, which was one of my favorite books of 2009. When we left our heroine, Ai Ling, things had settled down for her considerably after a long and tumultuous journey to the capital of Xia (the fictional country based on China's historical Xiang Province), and an epic final confrontation with the villain. Fury of the Phoenix not only picks up where Silver Phoenix left off, but sets us right down in the middle of the action, with Ai Ling fearlessly chasing down a ship bound for the West in order to protect Chen Yong, the hunky dreamboat who's traveling to look for his long lost father.

Ai Ling has had visions that evil awaits Chen Yong, but what she doesn't expect is that instead of launching her into new adventures, her journey will pull her deeper into the past, entangling her further with Zhong Ye, the man she recently killed. In order to finally be free of him, she will have to understand him, as well as the mysterious Silver Phoenix.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Do the characters make you want to rip your own face off? Not at all.

Does the plot make sense? Yes. This book is actually a bit of a surprise (and this seems to be a consensus garnered from my brief perusal of reviews across the internet), in that it centers around the plot of the first book rather than plunging us into a new adventure, which I think most of us were expecting to be Chen Yong's search for his father. It's a risky move, but IMO it pays off beautifully.

Is the prose abysmal? Never. Cindy Pon has sharp, vivid characterizations but a very subtle way of rendering them: she doesn't mire you down in detail or try to be snappy, and her prose style is just flat-out pleasurable to read, in a way few YA authors are.

Does it end on a cliffhanger only designed to make you buy more books? No! At first I thought it might not be accessible to people just picking it up without having read Silver Phoenix, but I've changed my mind: there's enough context, and enough to enjoy in Cindy Pon's prose style, that readers will enjoy this book even if they're coming to it cold.

Why I absolutely loved it--which incidentally is the reason other people might hate it:


Picking up this book was like wrapping up in a comfy down blanket: I trusted the writer, I loved the universe and the characters, and I had absolutely no reader anxieties, no fears that this author was going to hit me with something that would throw me out of the story or make me uncomfortable. So I was able to kick back and enjoy this book, with its lovely writing and solid characterizations, from start to finish.

That said, I have a feeling that fans of Silver Phoenix will either love and embrace or emphatically reject the sequel. There are a number of reasons for that. The most obvious one is that Fury is concerned with revisiting the characters and conflicts in its predecessor, something most YA duologies would never dream of doing because they're too busy laying new ground for a potential continuation of the series.

I had no problem with this plot because it fell in line with endless manga and television series where shortly after doing something unforgivable, the series villain is rendered sympathetic by the revelation of new context or backstory, and thus is transformed from "unforgivable" to "unforgettable." But this tactic just isn't something you see in YA very often--especially in the sense that readers are asked to return to plot threads they probably thought had been concluded at the end of the first novel.

Ordinarily I can't say that I would have enjoyed such a retread either, but not all books have Cindy Pon's deft and gentle writing style, which tends to engage me and pull me in despite my misgivings. Moreover, her characters are sympathetic, and I really enjoyed all of the sections with Zhong Ye. I kept having to remind myself that the person with whom I was sympathizing was an evil rapist. My one qualm with this book is that I'm not sure Pon quite made the leap in the end from the naive but opportunistic eunuch we met in the beginning of the book to the evil world-destroyer (and rapist) Ai Ling met in the last book--but it was a close shave, if anything, because he was obviously getting there, and I was too busy enjoying the read to quibble with the "how" when I was obviously on board with the "why."

Because this is a book that is about grace and forgiveness, and that's where lines are going to be drawn in the sand. Zhang Ye is, it needs to be said, a rapist and a murderer. There are going to be some readers who will resent that they are asked to go into the head of this villain and learn how he became this way. (I would ask all readers who feel that way if they had any such reservations shipping Chuck/Blair after we see Chuck nearly rape a girl in the first ep of Gossip Girl, or liking Sawyer on Lost after he proves himself to be a racist in the first few eps. Or Fei Long in Viewfinder. Or-- okay, you get my drift.)

I actually really loved and appreciated that the author went there. I'll teeter further out on that limb and say it's a very Christian worldview, because it takes the view that every person deserves forgiveness and understanding, no matter how evil they are, or how heinous their sin. That kind of message is sometimes incredibly difficult to swallow, even though it's also incredibly important; and in this sense, the conclusion of Fury of the Phoenix reminded me a very great deal of Talk to Her (my favorite film of all time). They are thematically similar, too, in the sense that both concern the relationship between a woman and her rapist. This is a hefty theme for any book to pull off, let alone a YA fantasy; but Pon dealt unflinchingly with sexism and sexual violence in Silver Phoenix, and Fury of the Phoenix is no different.

It also helps that she has a wonderful (though at least in Ai Ling's arc, nearly all-male) cast of supporting characters. I seriously started shipping Ai Ling / the ship's captain for a few chapters, before I realized that he was probably too busy shipping himself / his first mate--a very subtle but much-appreciated and delightful gesture, in a book that's full of charming moments.

I would have liked for this book to be longer; the wrap-up with Chen Yong and his father felt far too easy after all the buildup, and the supporting characters in this leg of the novel were pretty cut-and-paste. I would have loved to see more wonderful female characters, though I have to say that I loved the development of Silver Phoenix's character, as well as her mistress, and I only wanted to see more of them both.

Above all, though I am disappointed with the whitewashed cover, and I wanted more of the fairy tale and folklore aspects that made the first novel so unique and remarkable, there was enough in this book to deliver an extremely satisfying and beautifully penned resolution to Ai Ling's tale. In the end I just wanted more of everything: more female characters, more folklore, more food :D :D :D, more sultry moments of UST between her and Chen Yong, more of the hot captain, more of Silver Phoenix--just more of everything.

Which of course, leads me to say that I hope everyone who bought and enjoyed Silver Phoenix will support the sequel. You will want a copy on your shelf. And if you haven't read Silver Phoenix (my review is here), omg what are you waiting for, READ IT, READ IT!

We need writers like Cindy Pon. We need her commitment to telling stories about grace, love, and forgiveness, and we always need her luminous writing style and her proud heroines. I can't wait to read whatever she writes next.

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