Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia

Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , , | Posted on 8:34 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars

An absorbing adventure novel in the best sense, this book deftly weaves Chinese folktales and legends into a fascinating backdrop for a strong heroine. In her story, Pon acknowledges but doesn't exaggerate the 'traditional' draconian social codes for women, and she also avoids trying to awkwardly shove a 'modern' tale into the cultural framework. For Ai Ling, life as a young woman isn't fair -- the only thing worse than being given away in an arranged marriage is being refused by her suitors and causing her parents to lose face. She is caught in an impossible situation, longing for a love match like her parents' but knowing that, with her father's past disgrace, she would be lucky to secure any young man of decent reputation and income.

When Ai Ling's father is called to court and does not return, his disappearance puts his wife and daughter in dire straits, and Ai Ling sets alone out to find him. She soon discovers that she faces worse dangers than the customary threats to a lone woman traveler; dark spirits seem to be hunting her, creatures that seem to come straight from the pages of her father's forbidden text, The Book of the Dead. Further, Ai Ling herself seems to be changing -- she is caught up in odd trances where she seems to hear other people's thoughts, as if her spirit is sailing out of her body. Then there's the matter of the jade pendant her father gave her, a seemingly innocuous stone that begins to glow when the demons threaten...

When Ai Ling meets Chen Yong, a young man with half-foreign heritage, she wonders if their destinies are somehow intertwined. He is searching for his own father, and Ai Ling finds him both compelling and troubling with his strange, green-tinged eyes -- can she trust him with her quest?

Well-written and complex without being overly involved; Pon crafts a plot that's naturally integrated into the cultural background of ancient China. What I love most about this book is how the setting and characters are presented so...naturally (for lack of a better term). There isn't that weird, self-conscious foreignization/domestication dance that usually happens when presenting Chinese culture to an 'American' audience, because Pon focuses on the characters and the world as part of their story. Readers who don't know anything about China won't feel shut out, and I loved discovering creatures and legends I'd never heard of before.

Plus, I got to root for a female heroine who is both strong and yet also part of her own society -- she's not completely custom-bound, but she dearly loves and respects her parents to the point of making sacrifices. The supporting characters were also nicely drawn and the story was fantastical and even romantic without being overly sentimental...if that makes any sense. Overall, an excellent read with an infusion of rich mythology (and some mouth-watering descriptions of food. Yum!).

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