Let me out myself right now that despite my cool demeanor and hip clothes, I was once (and still kind of am) a huge fantasy/science fiction reader. If any novel had a cool illustration involving a dragon, crystals and medieval clothes, I would instantly pick it up and engross myself in an alternate universe that involved magical incantations, saving a king and lots of white people brandishing swords. Yeah, that was one thing that always bugged me about popular fantasy novels: why was it so white washed? Was magic and imagination limited to the medieval, European world?
Fortunately for the younger generation, writer Cindy Pon tackles the genre with her first novel, Silver Phoenix, which is set to be released by HarperTeens tomorrow, April 28th in bookstores everywhere. The novel follows Ai Ling, a young woman who leaves her home to find her missing father, only to learn that she is on a path to fulfill her destiny from the gods.
If you couldn’t tell by the book cover, Pon’s story takes place in the Kingdom of Xia, an Asian-centric world where legends, clothing, and traditions would feel more familiar than exotic to the Asian American reader. I know I’m a little old for the novel’s demographic, but I thoroughly enjoyed Pon’s first foray into the young adult fantasy genre. She creates a sound “universe” that drew from her background in Chinese brush painting and research into traditional Chinese architecture, art and poetry–as well as her love of food. Let’s be honest; Ai Ling’s travels around Xia made my tummy grumble more than once. Who wants to get dim sum with me this weekend?
More interestingly was Pon’s inclusion of race in Silver Phoenix with her other main character, a half-Xian boy named Chen who often found himself at odds due to his biracial background. Pon included Chen to play around with the notion of a hapa boy dealing with being an outsider in Xia, an experience that most non-white characters would find themselves in the prototypical fantasy plot. It’s not hard to point out that fantasy authors either ignore these situations (since they usually take place in an alternate world) or thoroughly categorize any sort of outsider as evil or bad, creating a vacuum in the genre on how these stories can reflect complicated issues about race and culture (unless you’re Ursula Le Guin). Pon, on the other hand, seems to have embraced this idea of different races and resulting conflicts, further turning the Caucasian dominated fantasy worlds upside down.
I don’t want to give away too much of Silver Phoenix‘s plotline, but I would eagerly recommend the novel for fantasy fans, whether they are parents or young readers themselves looking for a unique alternative to Harry Potter or Twilight. Especially Twilight. Anything but that horrible book. PLEASE.