From the beginning, Ai Ling has lived life differently from most young women in Xia. Born of parents who married for love, she is a cherished only child in a society that prizes sons, educated by her scholarly father and as she comes of age, the ability to sense the thoughts of those around her. When her father is called to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams expecting to be away no longer than two months, he leave his daughter with two things: a green jade pendant carved with the character "spirit" and the reminder that she is special beyond the belief held by a doting father.
Women traveling alone is a dangerous undertaking, but more than three months pass and an opportunistic merchant tries to force her into an unwanted marriage, Ai Ling knows she must journey to the Palace herself and bring her father home. Attack by an unknown, dark force brings rescue and a traveling companion in the form of nineteen year old Chen Yong, a young man also searching for his father.
It is only after another attack, the counsel of Master Tan, and a glimpse at The Book of The Dead, that Ai Ling truly begins to grasp the enormity of her power and the menace she faces. Joined by Chen Wong's brother, outrageously flirtatious Li Rong, the three teenagers embark on a pilgrimage that will lead to the gods themselves...and eventually confrontation with an evil sorcerer Ai Ling has (unknowingly) faced before.
Where do I start with all the things I love about Cindy Pon's debut fantasy SILVER PHOENIX? Finally a novel based on Chinese legends and myth rather than the same, tired rehash of Celtic and other western European folklore. I relished Ms. Pon's vividly rendered portraits of both Ai Ling's normal and paranormal "worlds," from the quiet tranquility of her family's home, to the lush splendor of the Golden Palace, or the frightening grotesqueness of The Chief and The Anatomist.
Ms. Pon is exhibits a deft ability in characterization, giving us multidimensional humans, appropriately removed deities, and viscously single-minded evil entities. Even Zhong Ye boasts enough shading and nuance to become more than the stereotypical archvillan. Ai Ling is a compelling protagonist and though some might say it's unusual for a young woman in her position to so easily overstep society's boundaries (even to save a beloved parent), Ms. Pon has already established that Ai Ling is unaccustomed to those restraints. My only complaint in this area is while Chong Ye is clearly the odd on favorite for Ai Ling's romantic interest, he falls flat in the presence of Li Rong's flare and charm.
And while the continued reference to characters packing and unloading their knapsacks (did knapsacks even exist in ancient China?) kept jarring me out of the story, I loved everything about SILVER PHOENIX. This is one of those rare books that has made my "keeper" shelf.
Originally posted at TeensReadToo.com