Fox and Phoenix by Beth Bernobich
Cover art by Nigel Quarless
Published by Viking
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
For readers who first discovered Beth Bernobich through the unsparing Passion Play, which compromised nothing in its portrayal of a pre-Industrial society, yet never wallowed in or glorified evil, this novel will come as a surprise. Since it is aimed at the teen market rather than adults, it has a markedly different tone, lighter and more cheerful -- but still, the author does not shy away from portraying the negative consequences of selfishness and overweening ambition.
It's also interesting in that it begins in media res. Kai starts his first-person narration by telling us he used to believe in fairy tales, until he won a contest and the favor of a princess, but it didn't end happily ever after like the stories he always loved as a child. Thus we the readers are simultaneously put on notice that this story deals with the consequences of his previous adventure, and that he's lost some innocence and come to view his world through a cynical lens.
At the same time we see in him a wry sense of humor and, under his youthful frustration with his daily life and chores, an affection for his mother and her magic shop that let us know Kai's a good guy at heart, even if he's developed a crusty exterior as a result of having taken a blow to his childhood views of things. We also see that, unlike the River of Souls universe to which Passion Play belongs, this is a world in which magic is extremely common and does much of the work science-based technology does in the Primary World -- transportation, communications, security, medicine, etc. It's also a world in which humans are not the only self-aware beings, but share the world with a variety of other sophonts, both embodied and non-corporeal -- and they're drawn not from familiar European myth and folklore, but from that of China and other East Asian cultures.
Take for instance Kai's spirit companion, Chen the pig. On the surface he would seem to resemble the daemons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- except he's most definitely a Chinese pig, lean, bristly, and tusky like the pigs one see in illustrations of the Chinese zodiac, or traditional Chinese ink painting. And to fit Kai's raffish character, there's a mischievous streak In Chen that delights in setting Kai up for embarrassing pranks, such as giving him a spell well beyond his abilities to clean up a spill of magical ink, with the result that Kai's in even worse trouble, Sorcerer's Apprentice-fashion, and his mother has to get him out of the jam.
And then she delivers the bad news -- the king of their city-state has fallen ill, and isn't expected to survive the week. It's widely believed that he was attacked by angry heat-spirits, but Kai's mother suspects it's nothing more supernatural than overeating. In any case, his advisors have sent for his daughter, Princess Lian, who's studying in the fabled Phoenix Empire.
Kai decides it's time to contact the princess, using his special talk-phone that she gave him at the conclusion of that earlier adventure he mentioned in the beginning. Although they are powered by magic flux, talk-phones use wires, resistors, connectors and ports that feel quite technological, reinforcing the feeling of an alternate East Asia where magic fills the role of technology.
Except Kai can't get through, in spite of his talk-phone being coded by her with her own personal number. Kai knows something's wrong, but at the time he doesn't see it as something on which he can or should take action. As the king lingers, neither dying nor improving, Kai bides his time in an uneasy city, taking care of his mother's business and meeting with his friends to share speculations about the situation.
Then his mother disappears without a trace, and everything changes. Not just the reanimation of the stuffed griffin that had been a sort of a mascot for the shop, or the peculiar attitude of the king's officials when Kai tries to register a missing person report for his mother. A trip into the city's sewers to avoid the watch-demons results in an encounter with the king of the ghost dragons, who gives him a mission -- he is to go to the Phoenix Empire and bring Princess Lian home to her father's side.
So after securing his mother's shop as best he can, Kai heads off to the piaohao (a Chinese banking institution) to secure some money, and heads off. He's not alone, for his friend Yun soon joins him, having equipped herself far better than Kai's hasty preparations. However, she's also brought the griffin, which means that everything is going to be interesting, and not in a good way.
Although cities enjoy the equivalent of advanced technology as a result of the judicious use of magic, overland travel is pretty much limited to animal-drawn wagons. However, the burden of traveling through the bad weather of autumn rapidly giving way to winter is ameliorated somewhat by a network of inns and a Hospitality Law which ensures that no one will be casually cast out into life-threatening weather conditions.
As they travel toward the Phoenix Empire, they see more and more evidence that something is very wrong here. They pass through a city where the magical flux has failed, with disastrous consequences for their reanimated griffin. They're able to restore the reanimation spells in the next town and bring the little creature back to life, but they know enough about magic to wonder what could disrupt the flow of magical energy.
And then they're attacked by mercenaries masquerading as bandits, and only narrowly escape with the assistance of a ghost dragon. Someone wants them stopped -- but who, and why? And what was the ghost dragon doing? They are not creatures at the beck and call of humans, but act for their own reasons and purposes, which means their people stand to gain or lose by the success or failure of Kai's mission.
Thus it's a very uneasy pair who arrive at the border of the Phoenix Empire. It doesn't help that their spirit companions have vanished without a trace. At least the rest of the journey to the capital will be by train, a welcome respite for two weary travelers who've battled snowstorms, bandits and mercenaries -- but the Phoenix Empire is a very different culture from their provincial town in the mountains. It's a more formal land, of layers upon layers of ceremonial politeness, so connecting with the Princess isn't so easy. She used to have an apartment near the university, but recently the Emperor invited her to move into the Palace, an honor one cannot possibly refuse.
Even after they make connections with the help of a man whose intentions they have reason to suspect, they get more and more evidence something is afoot. The Emperor is willing to permit Princess Lian to return home and tend to her father, but places an unending sequence of obstacles in her way, always with infinite courtesy that creates and covers iron obligations.
It's not easy to break through that net of duty, softer than velvet yet stronger than steel. But it becomes increasingly clear that they must do it, for the source of all the trouble, from the king's illness to the disappearances to the town whose magic has run dry, lies within the palace, and perilously near the Emperor.
It does have a happy ending, and a surprising one. The concept of magic as metaphor for the energy sources used by the technologies of the Primary World is not new. However, in Larry Niven's stories of vanishing magic, mana was a metaphor for fossil fuels, while in this novel it appears that magic flux or chi renews itself, although only at a particular pace, such that the available supply can be drained if used without restraint, and trying to create reservoirs of it for one's own use can leave other regions deprived of their supply. As a result, magical flux can be seen as corresponding more closely to renewable energy sources such as water and wood (or to drinking water -- wells will replenish themselves, but if you pump them too fast and drain the aquifer, they will run dry).
Overall, this novel is a skillfully and intricately realized magical version of Chinese culture. The language is handled with especial deftness, particularly the various hesitation sounds and onomatopoeic terms, which are notably different from those English speakers will be familiar with. I really hope the author will be writing more novels in this fascinating universe, for we need more young adult fantasies that take us beyond the well-worn paths of the Tolkien clones and the Conan clones to new horizons, and let us see them through the eyes of those for whom those lands are not exotic, but home.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
Buy Fox and Phoenix from Amazon.com