by Cindy Pon
Young Adult, 352 pages.
Greenwillow, HarperTeen (2009)
No suitor wants seventeen year-old Ai Ling because they think her father betrayed the Emperor many years ago. This great agony turns out to be her greatest gift. When her father disappears, she’s free to go after him, armed with the necklace she gave her when she was just a little girl: a jade pendant bearing the symbol for “Spirit.”
On her journey, Ai Ling meets brothers Chen Yong and the hilarious Li Rong. The further she journeys to find her father, the more she’s aware that her pendant seems to awaken powers in herself. She can project her spirit into another’s body and hear their thoughts, she also enjoys bursts of warrior strength when she’s in danger. Oh yes, and she’s become somewhat of an evil magnet, with every being in Chinese folklore out to get her. Will she reach the imperial palace where her father is being held hostage? Will she take the one suitor who’s been waiting to have her for centuries to save her family?
The lush plot of SILVER PHOENIX is hard to articulate here. There are imaginative monsters, family lore and danger at every turn. Through it all, Ai Ling and Chen Yong do battle, deveop deep and truthful feelings for each other and feast on lavishly described meals. Have enough bloggers mentioned that this novel makes you a hunger fiend for delicious Chinese food? (Here and here, for example.) I was reading it last night with one hand on the phone, ready for Cindy Pon to somehow communicate to me, through code in the prose, that it was okay to order something for delivery.
It turns out that Ai Ling’s powers and destiny come from the fact that she was a woman called Silver Phoenix in an earlier life. She must channel these powers near the end to overcome her greatest foe yet, but not without sacrifice. I would have loved even more emphasis on the Silver Phoenix storyline as it leads up to the climax. However, I would not change a thing about the last chapter. No matter how much glorious food there is in this novel, Cindy Pon does not let Ai Ling have her cake and eat it, too. Ai Ling triumphs over most things, but Cindy refuses to let her enjoy the romantic happy ending that most authors would’ve included. That choice made the entire book resonate more strongly with me.
If you want adventure, a great balance of tidy writing and exciting story, and a protagonist who has her strength tested in fantastic ways but learns a very real lesson about herself, check out SILVER PHOENIX — which came out yesterday. Pick up a copy for yourself and one for a friend at your favorite indie bookstore!
For Readers: A blazingly fast read that would be especially exciting for girls who like fantasy with strong character and great writing. This could even be a hit with boys who want a relatively familiar world but with a girl protagonist. While some of the conflicts can seem repetitive (monster, slay, repeat) there is great emotional content here as Cindy explores family, love and loss. I’m very, very glad that I stayed up (way too late) reading this in one enormous gulp!
For Writers: I’ve mentioned Cidny’s balancing act already but I think it bears repeating: there is a very pleasing mix here of prose and action, plot and world, love and duty, growth and obstacle. One of my favorite things about this book was the rich world-building that Cindy managed. She rendered the world in a very distinctive style, like one of her gorgeous brush paintings. And the best part about it was that, once she did this, she didn’t have to spend hardly any time at all to introduce new towns, new people, new creatures. All of these things seemed to evolve very naturally. If you’re building a world of any kind, read this book to see what total and effortless immersion feels like. The ancient Chinese landscape is such a fascinating setting, also, because of all the fantastical animals and folklore she gets to play around with. Bravo!
As some of you might know, Cindy is a great friend and resource to many in the online kidlit community. You can check out her website here and follow her on Twitter: @cindypon. She’s one of the warmest and most radiant debut writers and I couldn’t be happier for her!