05 May / Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon
Debut novelist Cindy Pon undoubtedly knows how to tell a story: Silver Phoenix is an exciting tale about a village teenager in ancient China who escapes a potential marriage with the over-wived town lech and goes on a great adventure through magical worlds to rescue her beloved father who’s being held in the Emperor’s court. Girl power all the way, right?
But what I”m not so sure about is if she knows how to tell a story for her supposed young adult audience (the galley suggests readers “14 up” and grades “9 up”). Warning: possible spoilers ahead.
The book opens with Ai Ling, our heroine, confusedly reading a sex manual, quaintly titled The Book of Making, given to her by her mother because “[i]t’s been one year since [her] monthly letting began” so she needs to study up on “what it take to pleasure [her] husband.” Sure they married early back then, but the intended reader today is really still a child. Does s/he really need to know names of sexual positions at 14 or 9th grade?
The phrase “spiritual rape” (in addition to the usual textbook, ripped bodice variety) gets thrown about a bit too nonchalantly – Ai Ling’s power grows from hearing unsaid thoughts to quickly entering people’s very beings and controlling her victims from within. By book’s end, Pon throws in quite the erotic seduction scene for our Ai Ling, just before she kills off her new evil eunuch husband who has guaranteed all sorts of pleasurable fulfillment even without his graphically described missing parts.
Uhmm … okay, so I grew up really Catholic, but again, I have to ask, 14? 9th grade? My daughter just turned 13. I can’t imagine passing her this book in a year. Just to check in, I did talk to some other mothers with teenagers and we’re all in denial … at least we’re in denial together.
I think this is a book about girl power. About 1/3 into the book, Ai Ling wonders to herself, “Why were women always seen as things to be possessed by men in these tales, never worth more than their physical beauty?” Her feisty independent streak is clearly abundant. She knows how to save herself, as well as her adventure-sharing traveling companion brothers. She’s no wilting anorexic, as Pon reminds us more than several times about her healthy appetite. And, of course, she’s gorgeous and untouched, too. The cover’s a bit cringe-inducing with “EXOTIC” stamped all over it. Hmmm …
Bottom line: Is it entertaining? Most definitely. Although maybe of the guilty pleasure, quick-read variety. But is it appropriate for teenage readers? Not really. Maybe for older teens at best?
Readers: Young Adult, Adult