Ai 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.