Silver PhoenixAi Ling at sixteen is educated–unusual for Xian girls–and has been rejected by the families of several potential husbands. This is embarrassing enough, though a bit of a relief, before her father leaves on an unprecedented trip to the imperial palace. After he’s gone several months longer than anticipated, however, it gets worse; Ai Ling and her mother are threatened by heavy debt unless Ai Ling become the fourth wife to a rather unpleasant business man. Rather than suffer this fate, Ai Ling runs away, going to seek her father. Of course, she finds herself pursued by demons and foul creatures, meets a few handsome men, and turns out to have been born for a Purpose.

Silver Phoenix is anchored in Chinese culture, and that is its great strength. The overall idea of the plot is fairly common in fantasy, but the because the details are based on Chinese rather than Euro-American culture, it does stand out. The descriptions of food and use of hair to establish class and status are particularly well done, though perhaps we don’t need the hairstyle of servant girls described every time we see it. (The first time is great. After that, however, it’s fine to just say “her hair marked her as a servant” and we’ll get the picture, or “her hair was in two braids coiled around her ears” and we’ll get her status).

The writing generally fails to instill excitement or tension. It’s often sloppy, over-describing in some places and under-describing in others. There are also odd contradictions: “I’ve tried to kill you many times . . . . You surprised me each time you managed to live. . . . I always knew that only I could finish this task.”¹ Well, which is it, villain? If you always knew you had to finish it yourself, why were you surprised each time the demons you sent failed to finish her off? Or, if you’re burning a body on a funeral pyre and “she gently laid a yellow cloth over [dead character]’s face” before lighting it, why would you immediate say that the flames “crackled, spread, and illuminated [dead character]’s face, making him appear lifelike again.”²? If is face is covered, no one can see it.

The strengths and the weaknesses: it’s all in the details.

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¹p. 261.
²p. 196.

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Silver Phoenix ~ Cindy Pon ~ Cindy Pon’s Blog

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The New Policeman, Kate Thompson’s first book revolving around the Liddy family’s relationship with Tír ná n’Óg (in Irish mythology, the land of eternal youth) and its fairy inhabitants, was quite good.

The Last of the High Kings is better.

J.J. Liddy, a teenager at the time of his first adventure, is now a grown man – mostly – with a wife and four children, ranging from two and a half to seventeen years old. Everyone’s fully fleshed-out – with the possible exception of the two year old, but he’s too young to do much other than wreak havoc – but it’s the eleven year old daughter and the (I think) nine year old son who claim all the glory. She’s friends with a púka and a ghost, and he’s friends with their elderly neighbor, who claims to be the last of the High Kings of Ireland, and wants to go to the Beacon at the top of the hill one more time before he dies. J.J. just wants to get his supply of chiming maple from Aengus Óg so he can make the best fiddles the world has seen since Stradivarius, and be home more to help his wife with the children, to boot. It takes all three of these plots coming together to save the human race, who, of course, never knew how close they were to destruction. Not even J.J. knows; most of that burden is reserved for eleven-year-old Jenny.

Jenny’s a difficult character done well. She’s by nature feckless and flightly, and has a great deal of trouble understanding what other people are feeling – or even remembering to wonder – but eventually she’s forced to focus and empathize. It would be easy for that transition to ring false, but it doesn’t; Thompson has done her job well, so when it happens, it makes sense.

Thompson manages her other challenges with equal aplomb. The book is well-balanced among characters of disparate ages and temperaments. J.J. himself has aged well, being both convincingly adult and recognizably consistent with the teenager introduced in The New Policeman.

The fairies, living as they do in the land of eternal youth, haven’t aged a day.

If Diana Wynne Jones is good at one thing – and she is – it’s really fun fluff. House of Many Ways is an excellent example of this. Our protagonist, Charmain, is the great great grand-niece by marriage of the kingdom’s wizard. She’s sent off to watch her great great grand-uncle’s house while he’s being healed by the elves, and takes the opportunity to write the King and offer her services helping in the royal library – not because she wants to be helpful, particularly, but because she wants to look at the books. Charmain is spoiled and useless, having never learned to clean up after herself, do laundry, wash dishes, or the like. She’s prone to snapping at people, especially when she isn’t quite sure what to do. When something goes wrong, her initial reaction is to bury her nose in a book.

In short, she embodies the worst parts of me, and probably of you, too. I should hate her. So should you.

But I just can’t.

It’s just too much fun to wander the strange house and the king’s palace with her and gather the little clues the author has left for us, with little diversions to explore such problems as accidentally washing a red wool robe with a load of white shirts.