To the eyes of us in the West the geographical area of the world we know as China has been long a mystery. I'm sure the majority of North Americans still think of breaded chicken covered in lurid red sauce and badly dubbed Kung-fu movies as the epitome of Chinese culture. Those who are slightly more enlightened may be able to tell you that it's one of the world's most populated countries and has recently developed into an economic giant. Depending on your viewpoint she's either an oppressive regime using slave labour to flood the world with cheap merchandise, or the land of opportunity where a shrewd businessman can make his fortune.
Thankfully things are different when it comes to books, and we've seen the publication of numerous works translated into English from Chinese starting to show up on the shelves of bookstores. Even better, is that after years of silence the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants are also beginning to create art which honours their heritage. Cindy Pon, whose first novel Silver Phoenix was just released by Harper Collins Canada, doesn't quite technically fit into either of the above categories as she was born in Taipei Taiwan, but her family immigrated to the United States in 1980 and she writes in English.
I'm no authority on Chinese culture, particularly folk tales, but in Silver Phoenix it appears that Pon has drawn upon her knowledge of figures from myths and tales to create her story. She has elected to set the novel in an era a Western audience would be familiar with as it sounds like the typical feudal society depicted in many of the better Karate movies, but has included the added touch of making it obvious that initial contact has been made with people from beyond China's borders.
At 17 Ai Ling is feeling unwanted. As the daughter of a respected scholar and former advisor to the Emperor you would think her parents wouldn't have any trouble arranging a marriage for her. However, 17 is old, and when that is combined with the fact she is a little tall, somewhat willful, and rumours of her father having left the court in disgrace, it's fast becoming apparent that finding her a husband is going to be a lot more difficult than her parents anticipated. While Ai Ling feels somewhat bad for her parents, she is also relieved, as the thought of having to surrender the freedom she's enjoyed up to now to marry someone she doesn't know hasn't been filling her with great joy anyway. Unlike most young women of her age she's been taught to read and write and has a great deal of independence.
Just as she's resigned herself to a life with her parents, her father is called away mysteriously to return to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams – the court of the Emperor. While saying his good byes, Ai Ling's father gives her a beautiful jade pennant with the instructions that she's never to remove it while they are separated. Although slightly bemused at the request she complies – and a good thing, top. For after a couple of months she is forced to flee her house to escape the attempts of a loathsome local merchant to force her to marry him, and sets out to bring her father home, and the pennant becomes a key to her survival.
No sooner has she set out than inexplicably demons from ancient folk tales start showing up where she is travelling. At first she only sees one in action, but soon she realizes they have taken an unhealthy interest in her. She barely escapes drowning when a young man pulls her from the lake where the first demon that attacked her was attempting to drown her. Naturally as a young woman travelling alone she is at first wary of Chen Yong, but he eventually wins her trust. This is partially due to the fact that he's as much an oddity as she, but also because he is obviously of mixed blood. It turns out he's never met either of his birth parents, but he knows his father was a foreigner from the lands to the north where they have hair that's so pale it's almost white and eyes the colour of the sky.
Like Ai Ling he's hunting for information about his father, and they decide to join forces. Along the way they are joined by his younger step-brother, Li Rong, and the three of them continue to encounter beings from myths, both benign and evil, as they make their way to the palace. As the journey continues and they find out more about why Ai Ling is the target of these attacks, they also discover that she and Chen Yong's fates have been intertwined since before she was born. However, if they have any hope of discovering the truth, and finding Ai Ling's father, they are going to have to survive the hidden danger that awaits her at the Palace of Fragrant Dreams.
In Silver Phoenix Cindy Pon has done the remarkable job of not only telling a wonderful fantasy story with believable characters, but bringing alive a period of a culture's history. It comes as no surprise to learn that she is a student of Chinese brush painting, as she has a gift for bringing a scene to life in a mind's eye. As only a few perfectly selected brush strokes of a water colour painting can create a picture, Pon's words bring each scene in her book to life vividly. Whether she's describing the beauties of a garden, the intricate patterns of the two brothers sparring in unarmed combat, or the evil incarnate of one of the demons who attack the trio, a reader has no trouble visualizing what she's written.
While Silver Phoenix is nominally a book for young adults, the story is sophisticated enough and interesting enough for anybody who not only appreciates good fantasy, but who thinks there might be something more to Chinese culture than take-out food and action movies. While it may only represent a sliver of time in the history of that country, and a glimpse at a few of their folk tales, it's far more than what we are used to seeing and might just whet your appetite to find out more on your own. An adventure story with a taste of romance and an author with an ear for dialogue and an eye for description are a combination that's hard to beat, and that's what you'll find in Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix