Review posted November 27, 2012.
Greenwillow Books, 2009. 338 pages.
I'd been meaning to read this book for ages, and never quite got around to it until this summer, when I found out I might have a chance to meet Cindy Pon at ALA Annual Conference. Well, I did get the book read just before the conference, but I didn't end up getting to meet Cindy Pon. However, I was happy to read Silver Phoenix and am looking forward to reading the sequel, which I own a copy of (having gotten it at another ALA conference).
Silver Phoenix is a fantasy novel refreshingly different from so many that I've read, since this time instead of coming from a western fairy-tale medieval sort of background, the story has a Chinese traditional setting. In the author's acknowledgements in the back, she mentions doing research in a book, A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas, edited and translated by Richard E. Strassberg. This made the book fascinating and different from any other fantasy novel I've read.
Ai Ling's father is taking a mysterious journey to the Emperor's Palace. Before he goes, he gives her a pendant.
"It was given to me by a monk, years ago. Before I met your mother." He took the jade piece between his fingers. "I helped him transcribe a book of religious text in exchange for board at his temple."
He ran a fingertip over the raised character, his face pensive. "Before I left, he gave me this. He told me to give it to my daughter, if I should ever leave her side for long." A small smile touched at the corners of his mouth. "But when I said I had no daughter, he merely waved me away."
When Ai Ling's father doesn't return, a vile but powerful merchant tells her mother that he was owed money and will only forgive the debt if Ai Ling becomes his additional wife. In order to escape this fate, Ai Ling sets off to the Palace to find her father. She knows something must have happened, or he would have returned.
On the way to the Palace, Ai Ling seems to attract demons. But her pendant protects her. She gains companions along the way and learns to use the pendant which ultimately helps her in a showdown with evil and some revelations about why these things have happened to her.
Now, there were a few too many coincidences in this book for my taste. Ai Ling blunders along, and eventually gets to where she needs to go. The people she meet end up being the right companions for her.
However -- this is a good story and did keep me reading, and I liked the way the ending worked out. It made up for little things I didn't like about getting there. The demons that attack her are fascinating in their variety. Cindy Pon put that bestiary to good use!
I did like it that everything wasn't tied up nicely in the end. Besides that this way I can read on, that would have been just too much coincidence. There is more to be revealed, and I like that it didn't all come out at once. I have a feeling that I'm going to appreciate this story more as I read on.