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  • kjoannerixon

Phoenix Extravagant

A very important thing to know about me is that I Do Not read milSF. I used to, back when I was young and dumb and hadn't ever been in the actual military, but since 2005 I just haven't been able to stomach it.

It's not that the violence bothers me or anything. I don't have the classic soldier-type trauma that you might read about in a milSF novel, where I feel super sad because of killing someone I didn't think needed killing, or failing to save someone who needed saving. Nothing of that sort actually happened to me while I was in the military--and in fact I think it's quite rare, at least in the American military, which is a war-fighting machine only secondarily, after the primary mission of employing the disadvantaged youth of the country in a way that pours lots of money into communities where bombs are built and bases maintained, but without actually producing public works projects that politicians could be criticized over. The American military is for giving money to the builders of ships and tanks and airplanes, uniforms and MREs and computer systems, and only once that is accomplished do we send kids overseas to drop those bombs on people they don't know and never see.

Anyway, that's not why I don't read milSF. I don't read milSF because every single milSF story--even the ones that try not to glorify the military, even the ones that try to show the true pointless horror of war--show the military as full of competent people. People who know how to be tricky and solve problems and figure out the enemy and win battles and so on. They might be fascists at heart, but they're strong, skilled soldiers, right? In my experience, not so much. In my experience, soldiers are fumbling, oblivious, insecure people who model themselves after the cops on ensemble procedural dramas on network TV. The tough guys all think they're Jack Bauer from 24 and none of them understand why their abusive-dad techniques for controlling and manipulating people don't work the way they expect them to.

MilSF never portrays this correctly, and it annoys the hell out of me. Stories about competent soldiers are simply not authentic. Anyway so this is why I've never read anything by Yoon Ha Lee before. I tried, once, and noped out of NINEFOX GAMBIT like ten pages in. PHOENIX EXTRAVAGANT is a significant improvement on that. Jebi is a shallow, hapless artist with an incurious mind, who finds themself locked in the basement of the military industrial complex, literally grinding precious cultural artifacts to powder in order to feed the war machine. They hate it, as one would, and befriend a dragon, as one would, and then they--well, they don't really rebel so much as they attempt to run away from home.

I picked up this book after I asked a librarian for reccomendations. She suggested that I might like it as a modern fantasy novel about a revolution, and so I determinedly gave it a try. The conflict in the book is not, quite, a revolution, and the book is not, quite, about the conflict. I think my major frustration with the book is actually that Jebi is completely uninterested in the guerilla resistance movement against occupiers, which their sister is committed to! I was much more interested in the resistance than I was in Jebi's romantic maunderings--I wanted a book about Bongsunga, and I wanted it to be authentically full of people who were bad at guerilla resistance movements.

Okay, I admit, I really disliked Jebi. There's just something about a character who is in the middle of a bunch of really interesting things happening--who isn't interested! I won't be reading anything more by Yoon Ha Lee, I don't think. But, to be fair, this book does have a lot of things going for it, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people love it.

There are dragons, there are magical robots, there's a magical robot dragon. There are celestrials living on the moon! It's all super Korean, and the colonizers aren't proxies for the British! (Yet. There will clearly be a sequel with 'Westerners' in it.) The protagonist is nonbinary and queer, a lot of the warfighting characters are female, there are side characters in a romantic triad. The magical system, which uses art as fuel and involves painting magical glyphs in magical paints, is lovely and vivid and intriguing.

There are only a couple of spots where soldiers or cops have a level of competence so unbelievable that it was frankly stupid. Maybe that's not a deal breaker for you? Could be, I guess.


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