ARC Review—Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

I received this copy free in an exchange for an honest review via Netgalley, and I was ridiculously excited. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who semi-regularly reads this blog, but I am a huge fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s previous work—The Machineries of Empire series—and I fully intended to buy this book when it released. Getting to read it early, and for free, was an amazing surprise, but this review will be honest, I just wanted to let you know in advance that this is exactly the sort of book I like, written by an author whose work I am already a fan of.


I like the cover, it’s eye catching and beautiful, though the mismatched fonts in the title are a strange choice. Did they think people would have a hard time reading ‘Extravagant’ if it was cursive? But I love the stamped design of Yoon Ha Lee and the white writing against the colourful cover is very effective

The new blockbuster original fantasy work from Nebula, Hugo and Clarke award nominated author Yoon Ha Lee!

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…

So! I loved Phoenix Extravagent. The story doesn’t go at all like I expected it to, but it’s still well foreshadowed and all of the characters have great motivation for their actions. I didn’t really know anything about the Korean-Japanese war before I read this book, but after I finished the book and looked into it, that’s definitely a part of the inspiration for this story. If you do know more about the historical setting of this book, you will still enjoy Phoenix Extravagent however; probably even more so with the greater grounding in the setting.

This book is emotionally complex, but somehow remains light. The themes running through it of cultural genocide, racial divides, the morality of war, what makes us human and the value of art are undoubtedly heavy ones; but Jebi and Arazi are such joyful characters that the book never feels weighed down by its heavy content matter. To me, Phoenix Extravagant is exactly what science fiction and fantasy should be: using outlandish elements to explore real-world issues in an in-depth way that, without the softening effects of magic or futuristic touches, would be tragic, dry or politically fraught.

The plot of Phoenix Extravagent was fast moving and fascinating, and I loved the intricate world-building touches woven into the dialogue and scene descriptions, that fully helped the setting and magic/political system of the world come to life. There was no cliff hanger in this book, though there was a threat presented at the last moment that makes me think a sequel to Phoenix Extravagant is in the works—which I am extremely happy about.

The representation in this book was another high point. I think this is the only book I’ve read with multiple non-binary characters, and sexual minorities were also represented well, even a happy polygamous marriage was included—something I believe I’ve only seen previously in GL Carriger’s San Andreas Shifters series. The casual representation (plot points don’t revolve around any character’s identity, nor is anyone’s gender/sexuality discovered or revealed during the course of the novel) is always appreciated.

Jebi was a great main character, and I loved that their calling to art flavoured the way they experienced and described the world. Arazi was a hilarious and touching character, and Vei was an amazing grounding force for them both. I liked the sibling touches between Bongsunga and Jebi, and I hope to learn more about Jia and Jebi’s predecessor in future books.

The artists and the community they lived in was a fascinating set-up, and I loved the mythological interpretation of travelling to the moon. Automatons as a way to explore sentience and morality is always amazing, and I loved the idea of a calligraphy-based magic. This book is unique and amazing, and any fans of richly detailed fantasy and Yoon Ha Lee’s previous work will find something they enjoy in Phoenix Extravagant. I believe the book would also appeal to fans of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, Ian Irvine’s Well of Echoes quartet, Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree or RF Kuang’s The Poppy War.

Phoenix Extravagent releases on the 20th of October, 2020, and I’ll post a reminder on this blog for anyone interested in buying a copy at that time.




  1. I’ve got the ARC a week ago and just started reading it. So far very impressive. I’m getting used to the single-they pronoun, though I’m sometimes confused by it. I guess, we all have to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was like that with Seanan McGuire’s ‘Feedback’ (the first novel length book with a character using they/them pronouns), once you get used to it it seems pretty natural, in my experience. I was never grammatically correct enough to say ‘he or she’ when talking about an unknown person anyway, so using singular they is something I already did sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

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