I discovered Yoon Ha Lee, as many people did, with Ninefox Gambit. That book hit me like a freight train - there was so much happening, and I didn’t know if I understood half of it, it what I did get, I loved. I devoured the Machineries of Empire series and have been saving the short stories, reading them slowly, because I don’t want them to end. Last year, I read his YA novel, Dragon Pearl, which I frankly did not love. I’m not sure if I just found the plot too haphazard, or if the YA tone didn’t work for me, or if I didn’t enjoy the Space Fantasy aspects, but when I read it, I kept thinking two things: this protagonist is making all of the wrong choices, and the writing style is too simplistic and is turning me off.
When I found out Yoon Ha Lee had another book coming out, I was excited, but a tad hesitant after Dragon Pearl. Phoenix Extravagant was billed as a straight fantasy (which it certainly is!) and I usually prefer science fiction, but I was happy to read it when I got an eARC from NetGalley. I enjoyed it much more than Dragon Pearl, but still not nearly as much as the Machineries of Empire series.
In Phoenix Extravagant, the protagonist is an out of work artist who goes to work for the occupying government without realizing what they are getting into. Like thr protagonist in dragon pearl, I was irritated at the naïveté of the protagonist in this volume. I just felt like they were far stupider than I thought they should be and that made the book less enjoyable for me to read. I understand that the protagonist needed to learn valuable lessons about the world in which they lived, but that didn’t make it fun for me to have to go on the journey with them. Furthermore, I didn’t feel that the romance in this book was earned. The love interest seems so awful early in the book that I could not get over the initial characterization and therefore could not except the relationship. I might’ve enjoyed it more if I could have gotten the point of you of the love interest, but the book kept the perspective strictly on the protagonist, which I felt was to its detriment.
On the other hand, there is a fascinating artificial intelligence in this novel. I won’t spoil what it is or how it comes about, but it was far and away my favorite character in the entire book. I realized, while reading this volume, that my favorite part of the author’s previous trilogy was the robot characters. I would love to read more books by Yoon Ha Lee from a robotic character’s perspective. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel; I did like it and would recommend it. I just think it suffers in comparison to the author’s earlier work.