Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.
A medley of steampunk, fantasy, and magic realism? And featuring multiple animal characters? Frankly, none of those I like at all, let alone when all put together. But, expanding my literary horizons was of the main reasons I started this book club, as was supporting more LGBTQ representation in Korean and Korean-American fiction. So I was already well sold on Phoenix Extravagant (2021) by American writer Yoon Ha Lee (Wikipedia; interview) for this month’s book choice, only then to be even further persuaded by the following excellent, quick review by a fellow club member (posted with permission):
The genre is new to me, a giant leap really. Lots of norm transgressions, in the best possible way. Is it Steampunk, SciFi- Fantasy, Alternative History, Parody…??? Or none/ all?
American-Korean author Lee is not just transgressive in genre blending, but in the themes and characters of his story here. Lee himself identifies an a trans man/ queer (choosing “him/ he”) and his protagonist here is a gender neutral “them/they”. This was less confusing than the anti-woke mob might presume when reading. Non traditional nuclear/ heteronormative families, relationships and people populate this story with disarming naturalness. The whole book eschews complicated narrative and linguistic features, offering an ostensibly straightforward plot and “young adult” level vocabulary (albeit with some rather clever invented vernacular for the world described).
But the themes and historical parallels it clearly (maybe too obviously for a Korean audience) makes to Korea’s colonial experience are also subtly transgressive. It questions the ideas of nationalism and independence (for whom), as well as whether a foreign tyranny is worse than an indigenous one. In historical parallelism, it also questions who or what a loyal citizen/ collaborator is, in the face of daily needs to survive. The role of art also arises, and whether the effects of art can be attributed/ blamed on the artist?
There’s escapism and juvenile fantasy too – if you chose to read it that way. Worth a read!
Please see LibraryThing, The StoryGraph, and/or GoodReads for further reviews, and then, if Phoenix Extravagant still appeals, I’d like to invite you to our meeting on Wednesday 26 April, at 8:15pm Korean time. Just a small, informal event, with a limit of 12 participants to help ensure that they remain as safe a space as possible, please contact me via email or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address) if you are interested in attending. I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.
See you on Zoom!
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)