Notes: I read the paperback edition of Silver Phoenix. I posted the hardcover jacket illustration above because I like it a lot more than the quasi-faceless, probably-not-even-Chinese/Asian model on the paperback edition.
My Summary: When Ai Ling’s father goes missing, she decides to go in search of him, running away from an unwanted marriage while she’s at it. As she journeys on, she discovers a strange new power, befriends the handsome Chen Yong, meets many supernatural creatures and larger-than-life beings, and comes face-to-face with the ghosts of her past life.
So, I saw Silver Phoenix on the shelf at my high school’s library back in 2009, and for whatever reason, didn’t read it. Shame on younger me. I finally read it and its sequel, Fury of the Phoenix last year during the inception of my Asian American reading spree. I was particularly excited by the existence of the book as a fantasy lover. There are so few fantasy novels with Chinese-inspired settings and so many of the ones that exist are orientalist messes written by clueless and/or fetishizing white people. Reading an #ownvoices Asian fantasy was great.
First thing: worldbuilding. Cindy Pon’s eye for detail is wonderful, and the setting came alive (helped by my experience watching far too many Chinese/Taiwanese historical dramas). In particular, I really wanted to eat the food she described. I got so many cravings reading these books.
Beyond worldbuilding, the descriptions of demons never failed to creep me out. I’m not the book-throwing type (I like to keep my books in pristine condition), but if I were, I totally would have thrown it from being majorly grossed out.
The main character, Ai Ling, is daring and determined. She is willing to take risks for the things she cares about, even if it means flouting misogynistic social norms and facing demons. She is placed in some pretty terrifying situations, and while she’s not completely fearless, she manages to overcome the fear to do what is necessary and make progress in her journey. She saves herself, and she saves others, making her a heroine worthy of cheering on.
Chen Yong, Ai Ling’s travel companion and love interest, is a biracial hottie with a mysterious past, but thankfully, he’s not a) an “~exotic~” prop (quite the opposite, there is exploration of how he is “othered” by people for his mixed heritage) or b) an asshole whose past is used to excuse his horrible personality. He has his own story and struggles, especially in the second book, making him a character with depth, but he doesn’t usurp Ai Ling’s story and centrality, nor does the romance hijack the plot.
The first book concludes with loose ends. The second book picks up shortly after where the first book ends, bringing new conflicts and new characters as Ai Ling and Chen Yong travel to Jiang Dao to find Chen Yong’s birth family. It introduces a new perspective, the main antagonist’s, telling the story of his former life, in alternation with current events, thus adding greater depth to his character as and offering insight into his eventual transformation into a villain. It also brings the story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.
The only major thing lacking in this series was female characters/interaction. Thankfully, Cindy wrote Serpentine and Sacrifice to make up for that.
Recommendation: Read this duology! Recommended for fantasy lovers and older teens.