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Lee-Phoienix Extravagant

I could paint you, Jebi thought, and my sister would kill me for it. (p. 125)

Gyen Jebi belongs to a colonized land. The Empire of Razan has conquered the land of Hwaguk, renamed it Administrative Territory Fourteen, and is working to erase the names, the art, and the language of the defeated people. On the streets, order is kept by “the automata,” a mechanized police force with painted wooden masks for faces, who can neither be corrupted, nor begged for mercy. The citizens of Hwaguk chafe under the foreign yoke, while the Razanians themselves turn wary eyes to the empire’s borders, under looming threat from the “Westerners.” Meanwhile, Jebi’s sister, Bongsunga, secretly plans rebellion with a group of conspirators.

Jebi, however, is not cut out to be a fighter: they are a painter, yearning “for a chance to paint real art, to spend time with a community of like-minded artists—even if that meant working for the Razani government.” But when, contrary to their expectations, Jebi fails the entrance examination to the Ministry of Art and is thrown out of the house by their sister for being a collaborator, their career plans are on the verge of going up in smoke. Desperate, Jebi accepts a mysterious job offer from the Razanian Ministry of Armor, a branch of the Razanian military, responsible for the upkeep of the automata. There, Jebi soon realizes that the workshops of Armor are tasked with far more than painting posters and masks: the job, instead, will take them into the heart of the Razanian imperial project, and force them into a series of painful—and perilous—choices.

The twin themes of art and colonialism frame Yoon Ha Lee’s first foray into full-length fantasy, Phoenix Extravagant, set in an alternate version of the Korean-Japanese War (readers will be immediately reminded of the works of Guy Gavriel Kay). This is a world where art is interwoven into everyday life, a repository of historical memory, a site of contestation between centers of power, and above all, a way of seeing and understanding the world:

Only someone who knew Bongsunga well would have noticed that she looked older. Jebi wondered how they hadn’t seen it earlier. A Western painter would have pointed out the deeper lines around her eyes and mouth, or the deliberate rigidity of her stance. But Jebi believed that art was about the inner nature of things, and people. For the longest time, all they’d seen of Bongsunga was the grieving widow. Not until they’d taken up with the Ministry of Armor had they come to see that she’d found a purpose beyond that, and a new lover, and refused to let her grief bind her to the past ... I will paint you, Jebi thought, as I see you here. Above a grave, yes; but surrounded by the living. Death below, life above. The kind of spiritual balance that their third instructor had liked to natter about. As a child, Jebi had faked interest. Now, they wished they’d paid closer attention. (p. 65)

The two themes—art and colonialism—intersect in the Razanian automata: these are animated through the patterns that are painted upon their masks, and their characters—and actions—are determined by the choice of patterns. As the Ministry’s Duelist Prime, Dzuge Vei, explains to Jebi:

“Paints ... the secret to the automata’s animation. The paints imbue them with the illusion of life, and the particular qualities we want them to display—loyalty, courage, that sort of thing.” (p. 83)

In the world of Phoenix Extravagant, then, art is quite literally a collaborationist enterprise—or can become a revolutionary one. Jebi realizes this when they are told the horrifying story of where the paints come from; and again, when they are assigned to work on the Ministry’s prime automaton—a giant dragon called Arazi, allegedly responsible for a massacre when tested out for the first time—and determine what went wrong. As Vei informs them:

“Your job will be to use these pigments and the existing mystical symbols to write a new grammar for the dragon, one that allows us to use it in combat without it going berserk.” (p. 87)

But the rules of any grammar—as we know—can be bent with sufficient ingenuity. Phoenix Extravagant thus revisits an old set of debates in speculative fiction (primarily in stories and novels exploring robots and artificial intelligence), albeit with a fresh gloss: the problem of free will.

“You have a contradiction between the instruction to defend the base and defer to authority right here.” They pointed with their pencil to the columns of glyphs. “If there’s a contradiction, it gets a choice. You see? So we do our best not to incorporate any paradoxes, so we can completely predict the automaton’s actions.” (p. 95)

The project—as Jebi realizes—is to vest the automata with intelligence, but eliminate their ability to choose (the “contradiction” may remind readers of Asimov’s “Liar!”); and, as a member of a conquered people, they can swiftly draw connections with the colonial/imperial enterprise, “the choices that had been taken away from them” (p. 95). The theme of choice and constriction runs throughout Phoenix Extravagant: in a novel about the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, it could not, indeed, be otherwise. It structures Jebi’s interactions with their sister (in the context of the different choices they make), their negotiations with Razanian officials, and their own evolving feelings for Dzuge Vei (a complex and conflicted character in her own right). Indeed, the relationship between Jebi and Arazi itself plays out as a microcosm of the colonial relationship:

“They kept hesitating over the matter of contradiction and choice. If they forced the dragon to always tell the truth, it would just as easily reveal Jebi’s questioning to anyone who asked. If they gave it a choice, the dragon might lie to them.” (p. 130)

The decision to vest discretion in Arazi will, of course, add another actor to the drama: a thinking, choosing Arazi is both a weapon and a sentient intelligence. What is to be done, then, if Arazi, the weapon, can be turned against its creators and aid the revolution, but Arazi, the sentient being, would rather not? This is what Bongsunga desires, informing Jebi that it is their duty to the revolution and to their people by binding Arazi to their will. Arazi disagrees. Don’t give us the means to think and then take away our choices (p. 173), the dragon tells Jebi, setting up a conflict that will last the duration of the story.

For readers familiar with Lee’s science fiction—in particular, The Machineries of Empire series—Phoenix Extravagant may prove to be a surprising read (at least in the beginning!), a testament to Lee’s versatility as a writer. Far from consensus reality, the space-wars, and the complex mathematics of the Hexarchate that underpin The Machineries of Empire, Phoenix Extravagant is an altogether softer novel, where little loves and little preoccupations are as important to the world as the great conflicts. Some of the most beautiful parts of the novel involve Jebi attempting to describe the outside world to Arazi, with whom they have established a mental link, but who remains trapped in an underground cavern:

Zakan seemed content to walk at their elbow, so Jebi occupied themself describing their surroundings to Arazi. Bare-limbed sycamores and maples with a few last leaves clinging to their twigs, the slush underfoot, the magpies arguing over fallen snacks in the streets.


{When I see something grass-green, do you see sea-blue instead?} Jebi wondered.

{How would I know the difference?} Arazi asked, reasonably enough. (p. 190)

It is, ultimately, these moments—the vividness with which Lee paints the world, through the lens of art—that linger after the reader has finished Phoenix Extravagant. As the art critic John Berger might say, in Phoenix Extravagant, Lee has given us “a way of seeing.”

Gautam Bhatia is an Indian speculative fiction writer, and the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. He is the author of the science fiction duology, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Horizon (HarperCollins India, 2021). Both novels featured on Locus Magazine's year-end recommended reading list, and The Wall was shortlisted for the Valley of Words Award for English-language fiction. His short stories have appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and LiveMint magazine. He is based in New Delhi, India.
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