Fans of young adult fantasy who believe Harry Potter and Eragon encompasses all that can done within the genre need to open the new novel “Silver Phoenix,” by Cindy Pon. Pon breaths some fresh life into the genre with a world as ancient and wondrous as any since Bilbo Baggins first set foot out of his hole. The author accomplishes this mainly by taking her readers away from the traditional Western-influenced fantasy worlds where big men with big swords fight big dragons, and she drops the readers right down into the world of ancient China. In this world, often scholars can be the greatest of heroes, and dragons are not always bad guys.
The story begins with a young girl named Ai Ling who is beginning to discover she has abilities unknown to her before the start of this tale. Ai Ling’s father has traveled to the emperor’s palace and has gone missing. Meanwhile, Ai Ling is facing a forced marriage to a man unworthy of her. But she will have none of that. She takes to the road to escape the marriage and to find her lost father. Along the way she makes friends with the mysterious swordsman Chen Yong and his comedic brother, Li Rong. Threats and monsters abound at every turn, but they are not all great muscular beasts to be thwarted by a might arm and sword of steel; logic and magic are often deadlier weapons than a blade in this tale. Eventually Ai Ling discovers that to save her father, she must confront an enemy more powerful than the emperor himself, the sorcerer Zhong Ye.
The outcome to this story, the finale, is one no person could have expected, not even Ai Ling herself. Without giving too much away … love itself can be a terrible weapon.
The tale unfolds in a traditional manner, with the protagonist gathering a small band of friends and traveling across country to the ultimate showdown or fate, but there the similarities to most fantasy stories comes to an end. The villains here are unlike those found in most fantasy novels today, and the heroes are different, too; all of them spring from a culture different from ones more familiar to most readers, and this adds a unique element of wonderous emotional distance not felt possibly since the writings of Lord Dunsany Or J.R.R. Tolkien, the ever awe-inspiriing Neil Gaiman notwithstanding.
One word of warning, however. While this novel is for the YA audience, there are times in the tale when adult events take place. People are killed. Some of the monsters are quite disturbing. There is one scene where a rape almost occurs. Keep this in mind while deciding whether or not such a story is appropriate for your young reader. To be fair, there is nothing in “Silver Phoenix” overly gorey nor sexual, so there is no need to be too alarmed.
Another aspect to this book, the editing, shines quite well here. Many modern novels are rushed through the printing and publishing processes only to have a handful of errors still remaining in the ink, but not here.
The cover artwork, also, is quite strong and appropriate for the audience. Pon herself, a painter, also helped with some Chinese lettering within the novel, most notably the chapter headings.
For a great story that brings back the awe of something new, of youth, check out Cindy Pon’s “Silver Phoenix.” You won’t be disappointed.