I debated whether or not to include this book, but I decided that it presents such an interesting case that it makes the cut. The hardcover version of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix features an Asian girl in a bright pink dress will be superceded in 2011 by the paperback edition, featuring a cover more in line with the Twilight trend – dark background, close-up of a girl of indeterminate race, glowing point of color. But more on this later.
Silver Phoenix tells the story of Ai Ling, a seventeen year-old girl living in Xian Dynasty China who struggles against a culture that forces women to be subservient – they are often illiterate, and are married off at an early age to live under the power of their husband’s family. Ai Ling can both read and write, and remains unmarried and free. When her father disappears on a trip to the Emperor’s Palace, she sets off to find him.
Now I’m gonna break the rest of the plot down as briefly as possible: Ai Ling is attacked by demons and monsters previously thought to be only myth. Luckily, she is saved by a mysterious pendant that she wears, and her own developing spirit energy. She joins forces with the kind, noble, and attractive warrior Chen Yong, and his younger brother Li Rong. Lots of adventures ensue. Turns out, Ai Ling has been given a divine quest to destroy an ancient soul-sucking sorcerer who is in love with the woman she was in her past life, Silver Phoenix. Cue more adventuring!
The best part of this book is its originality. You can never predict what is going to happen next, which is increasingly unique in the YA genre. I think the originality comes from the fact that Cindy Pon douses the story in both ancient Chinese mythology and culture. It’s a nice break from the typical YA novel, and Ai Ling is a real go-getter who takes care of herself. In fact, she’s more impressive than the skilled warrior Chen Yong, and saves them more often than he does.
The writing in the book itself can be clunky, but Pon’s descriptions are wonderful. Take Ai Ling’s love of food (a running joke with Chen Yong); the tables of noodle bowls, dumplings, starfruit drizzled in honey, and sticky rice will have you salivating… However, some of the descriptions can really run on too long, such as when they travel to the world of the immortals and Pon spends pages just describing what they walk past. Also, though rare, there are references to rape and thus I would recommend this for higher-grade readers and the most mature middle-grade readers.
Now here’s the interesting point about the cover. Though the switch from the colorful traditional cover to dark Twilight-esque design was made after the book had been released and was selling poorly, and with Cindy Pon’s express permission, Greenwillow Books has been accused of whitewashing (re: removing an ethnic cover design to sell more books to a white audience). Personally, I think this is a load of B.S. The cover design is beautiful, but just not the type that is selling right now. If you look at the YA section in a bookstore, 70% of the covers will be black. Blame Twilight, not whitewashing. And I appreciate a publisher that is willing to make another go with a book they really believe in (and will be publishing a sequel to) instead of consigning it to a backlist. So read Silver Phoenix, be it for the dose of ancient China, the kick-ass heroine, the delicious food, or just to see what all the fuss is about!