The Plot: Ai Ling is seventeen. At the first betrothal arranged by her loving parents, not only is she rejected by the bridegroom and his mother (Ai Ling is too tall; her father left the Emperor’s court in disgrace years before), she discovers something disturbing about herself. Ai Ling can hear other people’s thoughts.
When Ai Ling’s father leaves on a short trip to the Palace, he gives her a jade necklace. Weeks pass, then months, and her father does not return. Ai Ling and her mother do not hear from him. Money grows tight; a neighbor appears, insisting that Ai Ling’s father owes him money and that Ai Ling must marry him to excuse the debt. Ai Ling had earlier heard the disturbing thoughts of this man and suspects the debt is fake.
Ai Ling decides that she has only one option: leave to find her father. Without telling her mother, she heads off and discovers more about herself, and her world, than she ever dreamed possible.
The Good: Trying to describe Silver Phoenix is hard, because it doesn’t fit any existing box.
“A quest book.” One could say Ai Ling is on a quest to find her father, but that quickly changes. Oh, yes, Ai Ling wants to find her father. That doesn’t change. Part way through the book, she learns that she has a greater purpose, that more is at stake than bringing her father home. The purpose and intent changes.
“An adventure book.” There is plenty of adventure! Ai Ling meets up with Chen Yong, a young man in search of answers about his biological parents. Chen Yong’s younger brother Li Rong joins them, and as the story progresses there is a lot of action and adventure. Which brings me to…
“Folk / fairy tale retelling.” While this isn’t quite right a descriptor, as this doesn’t retell one particular story, along the way Ai Ling and her friends discover that the stories about demons and gods they thought were only in books are real. And dangerous.
“A romance.” There is some attraction here, yes; but it isn’t quite so simple. Ai Ling developes feelings for someone, yes, but it is someone on his own journey and he doesn’t appear to quite return those feelings. The relationship is handled in a nice, subtle way. A deeper connection concerns a pair of other characters, a relationship for centuries between two souls. Ai Ling is a part of that connection, and the result is a scene towards the end of the book that was brilliantly written. It’s such a key scene, such an important part of the book, that all I can say is “wow.” We can talk in the comments.
A “puzzle book.” Silver Phoenix isn’t about a puzzle or solving a puzzle, but the pieces fit together very intricately, almost like a puzzle. What at first reading seems like unrelated incidents that are simply different parts of one quest turn out to have much deeper significance and meaning to the whole. For example, the book begins about twenty years before Ai Ling is born. The scene is about a child being born, a child who turns out to be half foreigner so obviously the child of an affair. So, while this book is about Ai Ling, it is clear that there is going to be a bigger story… especially when she meets someone who is about 19 and is part foreigner.
Ai Ling is an interesting main character. She’s a bit out of step with her society; a girl her age should be married, but she isn’t. She is also a reader and has read books her parents didn’t want her to read. This turns out to be a good thing, because reading about different demons helps her out when she actually encounters them! I misunderstood the jacket description, so at first thought that Ai Ling was going to be a fighter. The fighting is done mainly by Chen Yong and Li Rong. Ai Ling has other talents she brings to the quest. Perhaps one of my favorite parts about the way that Ai Ling’s journey is handled is that when Ai Ling runs away to find her father, she doesn’t dress herself up as a boy. She doesn’t have to hide who she is or pretend to have her adventures.