I was sent this book as an advance copy by the publisher via NetGalley for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.
Dragons. Art. Revolution.
Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.
One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.
But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.
What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…
Release date: October 20th
I can finally say I’ve read my first Yoon Ha Lee book! And I thought it could have gone a lot worse, considering the short stories I’ve read by him, but also it could have gone slightly better? I confess I was hoping to give this book 5 stars.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am not good at summarizing what this story is about because there’s many themes (colonization, art and so much more) that I truly believe is best to find out for yourself. But it is a beautiful story with an unlikely protagonist, Jebi, a nonbinary artist who’s really not fit to deal with everything thrown at them, and often gets sidetracked because they must paint at inconvenient times (Jebi’s actual thought process at seeing mud or their own blood: must use it as paint. now!) or because they are frankly a little too horny for their own good (but who can blame them when the object of their yearning is a beautiful sword-wielding woman).
Choosing Jebi as the protagonist was a choice that could have backfired but it made the book more interesting. Jebi is one of us, they don’t know how to deal with politics and revolutions, they want to stay out of it and they keep making mistakes when thrown in the middle of things. If you’re someone who tends to be frustrated with protagonists you might want to extend some mercy to Jebi and be understanding of them, and put yourself in their shoes.
I suspect a lot of people will come to this novel because of the mecha dragon shown on the cover (it’s me, I’m people), and they won’t be disappointed! While I would have loved for Arazi to have more page time, I still loved it and found its relationship with Jebi to be one of the highlights of the book. Arazi’s outside might be an automaton but it is a real dragon, with dragon skills and knowledge. Its curiosity about the world through Jebi’s senses was so cute and I truly wouldn’t mind a book only about their friendship.
The thing that most worried me going into this, only having read two of YHL’s short stories, was the writing style. The stories I read were really complicated and as much as I wanted to get along with the style it just made me feel like I was on a different (lower, much lower) level. My friend said the writing was very different here so I started the book without being too scared, but with the knowledge that YHL’s usual writing is much different I couldn’t help but notice how he kind of, forgive me for not knowing a better term, dumbed it down. Which is good!!! This writing will definitely appeal to a broader public and I didn’t have a problem with it, except when things were explained a little too much for my tastes. I hate being spoon-fed information about the character’s emotions, information that is already or can be made clear (with gestures, dialogues, tones) without overly explaining. I don’t think this is something that happened a lot, but it really stood out to me whenever it was unnecessary.
The “too much information” could have, in my opinion, be used elsewhere in the text. I confess that as much as I loved Arazi I still had a hard time getting a handle on its character at the beginning because I was left completely on my own to figure out its tone whenever it said something, and it already had the whole mysterious mecha dragon / real dragon entity thing going on, so a little help figuring out their personality would have been nice.
Overall, this not being the author’s usual writing style, I thought some aspects of the book felt like a colorful painting where the colors had been stripped of their vibrancy. What suffered mostly was how relatively little I was made to care about some of my favorite things in fiction (sibling drama, queer romance, relatable protagonist), to the point where throughout the book I had to remind myself to care instead of just caring. But the book made up for it with its story, its intriguing and frankly horrifying concepts (if you love art….prepare for pain), its normalized queerness (probably one of the most normalized across all planes – sexuality, gender, polyamory – that I’ve seen so far). Plus it’s obvious that even through a more simple writing style YHL is a great writer, so I highly recommend reading this (and I’ll be sure to try and read some of YHL’s previous non-short-story works too).