Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Elves. Wizards. Brawny barbarians, noble knights and hobbits. Orcs too. Yes, yes. We’ve read that one, dozens of times. Yawn.
What gets me about most fantasy fiction is, well, the lack of fantasy in it. Each time I see a map, some dodgy runes, and names like ‘Olaf the Mighty, barbarian of the Northern Wastes’ I put the book down and read something else.
I know we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Tolkien but do we really have to rewrite Lord of the Rings over and over again?
Which brings me neatly to Silver Phoenix. I am ashamed to admit it’s the first Chinese fantasy book I’ve ever read, but it’s opened up a whole new truly fantastical world to me. We have kung fu warriors, immense celestial dragons, isles of immortals and Ai Ling, teen heroine with a destiny that has haunted her through the ages. Most fantasy heroes have some sense of predestination, but Ai Ling’s is presented in a unique way. No finding a ring in the caves for her but something decided since her spirit lingered in the lands of the dead.
The book’s a quest, but set in a mythical Chinese world called Xia. Ai Ling has been promised in marriage to someone truly horrible so flees, to search for her father who’s been summoned to the Emperor’s court and never returned. On her adventures she meets two brothers trained in martial arts, Cheng Yong (on a quest of his own) and Li Rong, face demon seductresses, journey to the land of the gods and rescue a goddess to reach the Imperial court and discover that an immortal sorcerer, Zhong Ye, is behind all her troubles, and all is not quite what it seems...
The book is full of exotic, alien beauty from the customs, to the clothes, and especially, the food. You’re totally immersed in a fantasy world that, for the first time in AGES, really does feel fantastical.
Ai Ling, the heroine, has her special powers, but it’s her determination that’s the best thing about her. She’s independent, but not arrogantly so, she needs help and gives it too. All the main characters get their moments to shine, Cheng Yong is very, very cool and I’m really hoping Book 2 (Fury of the Phoenix) will explore more of his past.
There was so much I want to tell you about this book, and fortunately I have here Cindy Pon, the author, to help me. Oh the wonders of modern technology...
1. In the West we’re brought up reading Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian mythology. Even with my Asian background I wasn’t that familiar with Eastern mythology until I was well into my twenties, it’s just not that common over here in the UK. Tell us a bit about your own background and how you came to write a fantasy based in mythic China.
Sarwat, I was exactly the same! I grew up in the US learning about western mythology and loving them--especially Greek. I knew a few of the folklore tales tied with holidays in Chinese traditions, but my family isn't one of storytellers. So I didn't know anything beyond that. It wasn't until I decided to write Silver Phoenix that I researched more within Chinese folklore and incorporated it into my first novel.
2. The book’s fairly open on the subject of sex, with Ai Ling’s marriage preparations, a potential rape scene and her final encounter with Zhong Lee. Fantasy novels are somewhat notorious for their chasteness. Did you worry that some readers might find it too explicit?
Is it terrible to say I don't worry about readers at all when I'm writing? I try to remain as true to the storyline and the characters, and leave the editing to my editor. I didn't realize how forthright I was about the subject of sex until ari at blackteensread2.blogspot.com asked the same during an interview. In Xia, a girl's place was to make babies when she came of age. There was no dancing around it, and for me to do so as an author would have rendered the story inauthentic. And when I did edit with my editor, all those scenes stayed.
3. Food. Your book is full of details of every meal Ai Ling takes. Blimey, my stomach rumbles just thinking about it! What’s your favourite meal? Burger?
Burger! Snorts! It'd definitely have to be Chinese or Taiwanese. Noodles are a favorite and so are dumplings. I love minced pork with rice, xiao long bao, chow mien, mapo tofu, stinky tofu--Chinese food is so varied and delicious. I would die without rice after a few days. Ha!
4. Ai Ling goes way off the map when she ends up in the one-armed world of the three-eyed Archer and the Anatomist. Where on Earth did THAT idea come from!?!
Those lands were inspired by A Chinese Besitary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. It is an ancient text thousands of years old that the average Chinese probably would not have heard of or read. It detailed many different lands, people, gods, plant life, creatures and beasts. One couldn't help but be inspired reading it!
5. Much of Ai Ling’s problems arise from the gender politics of her world. She’s expected to be an obedient daughter, marry whom she’s told to, not allowed to travel alone and viewed as a possession rather than a human being. Given this remains true for far too many women even now, how much of this is taken from, say, ancient China, and how much of this was created for your setting?
I tried to stay true to cultural expectations of women in Chinese society from centuries past. At the same time, I left out the practice of foot binding because it would have rendered the story I wanted to write impossible. I always say that my story is Asian-American influenced. Because that is my background and thought and experiences, and what contributes to my stories and writing.
6. Book 2, Fury of the Phoenix, is due out soon. What can we expect from Ai Ling and do we see Chen Yong again?
Yes! Fury of the Phoenix will be out on March 29 this year. I call it a pre-sequel. There will be two storylines: Ai Ling and Chen Yong six months after Silver Phoenix ends, and Silver Phoenix and Zhong Ye three centuries before. I'm very proud of my sequel, I hope you enjoy it when you read it, Sarwat! Thanks so much for featuring me and my books here. I'm reading Dark Goddess now and loving it!
There you go, she's reading Dark Goddess and loving it. So if it's good enough for Cindy, then it's good enough for you.
There's still plenty of awesomeness to come and what's more, along with Becca, Holly, Brenna, Joy et al (see, I'm now on first names with all these people. See Sarwat name drop.) we've also got Kiersten White, author of the spendidly splendid Paranormalcy on board. Huzzah!