Fox and Phoenix
Viking ( $17.99, hc, 368 pages, October 2011)
Reviewed by Rich Horton
A few years ago Beth Bernobich published a delightful YA novelette called “Pig, Crane, Fox: Three Hearts Unfolding” in Steve Berman’s anthology Magic in the Mirrorstone. Now her first YA novel has appeared, a sequel to the earlier story. It’s also very nice, another benchmark in an evolving career that may become something quite special if Bernobich keeps doing work as interesting as she has done to date.
In “Pig, Crane, Fox” the main protagonist, Kai, is a boy working in his Mother’s magic shop. He (as with most people in his milieu) has a spirit companion, the pig Chen. He and his friends regard themselves as pretty streetwise – and maybe they are, to some extent. Then they get involved with the Princess Lian, as her father, ruler of their city-state, establishes a contest for her hand. Kai is mature enough to ask instead for Lian to be granted her real wish – to study at the major university in the Phoenix Empire.
The setting is explicitly Chinese-derived, though not in any recognizable China. It’s quite fantastical in nature – magic is everywhere – but with a distinctly Science-Fictional attitude informing things, such as the way magic is used. That setting, that mix of SF and Fantasy (a characteristic of much of Bernobich’s work, in different ways) was a big part of the attraction of the story, but so were the well-realized characters.
In Fox and Phoenix Kai again narrates. Lian is off at the University in Phoenix City. But her father is terribly ill, and his illness is affecting the entire city. Kai has his own problems – he is a bit estranged from his circle of friends, and his own magic studies are not going so well. Attempts to contact Lian at the University to warn her of her father’s state seem not to work. Then his mother disappears.
Trying to help, Kai ends up encountering the King’s old friend, the King of the Ghost Dragons, and the King sends Kai on a journey to Phoenix City to find out what is going on with Princess Lian. Kai’s best friend, Yún, a girl who has been engendering complicated feelings in his teenage mind, accompanies him – along, of course, with their spirit companions. And so they trek towards the big city – meeting a variety of perils along the way, and learning, especially at Phoenix City, that there are complicated political forces entangled in the problems of Princess Lian and her father. (Not to mention Kai’s mother.)
This is a very enjoyable novel. It expands on the interesting world-building introduced in the novelette. It develops the characters of Kai and his close friends, especially Yún, to very good effect. We get a better feel for the politics and geography of the setting, and hints as to the history. The story introduced in the novel is resolved effectively – there is certainly room for additional stories in this setting but we are not left hanging. These days some of the most enjoyable SF/Fantasy is being published in the YA category, and Fox and Phoenix is another example.
Rich Horton is an Associate Technical Fellow in Software for a major aerospace company in St. Louis, MO. He writes a regular column and book reviews for Black Gate, as well as a monthly column on short fiction for Locus and reviews for many other publications. He also edits an annual anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, for Prime Books. He maintains a website at www.sff.net/people/richard.horton, and can also be found on Live Journal.