Fox & Phoenix, by Beth Bernobich

Fox & Phoenix [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a change from Beth Bernobich‘s first novel, Passion Play (which Sherwood Smith and I discussed here).

Fox & Phoenix is Bernobich’s first YA title. From her site:

The king of Lóng City is dying. For Kai Zōu, the news means more than it does for most former street rats in the small mountain stronghold, because he and the king’s daughter are close friends. Then the majestic ruler of the ghost dragons orders Kai to travel across the country to the Phoenix Empire, where the princess is learning statecraft. In a court filled with intrigue, Kai and his best friend Yún must work together to help the princess escape and return to Lóng City.

There’s a lot I liked about this book, starting with the fact that it was set in the aftermath of a fairy tale adventure. If you’ve read my stuff, you know this is an approach I like, and from the very first page Kai points out some of the problem with fairy tales:

“All those stories stop right there. They never mention what comes later. How your gang changes. How your best friend doesn’t end up as your one true love.”

I enjoyed the world-building, which creates a pseudo-China both modern and medieval, with magic filling the role of electricity and technology. I liked the ghost dragons and  the spirit companions (particularly Kai’s companion Chen the pig) and especially the (not-)dead griffin. I liked the awkwardness of post-adventure relationships between Kai and his friends, all of whom were changed by that adventure.

I wish we had gotten more details about what came previously, though. In some ways, this reads like the second book of a series … it stands on its own, but there was the nagging feeling that I was missing something. (Note: Bernobich has e-published the prequel short story, “Pig, Crane, Fox,” which should fill in those gaps.)

My other complaint would be Kai himself, who made me a little grumpy in the first part of the book. This may be my own personal peeve, as I find myself with no patience for traditional teenage angst these days. (I lived it; I don’t want to relive it.) As the book progresses, Kai does move beyond that angst, and it feels like he finds himself and his role again.

The book does a nice job of exploring some of the implications of the commodification of magic, and how politics and magic intertwine. But I think the characters are the strongest part of the book, particularly in the ways they’ve changed, and the way they find new ways to come together at the end.

Also, Kai’s mom rocks.

Fox & Phoenix comes out on October 13. You can read an excerpt on Bernobich’s website.