The cover illustration shows the pacifistic roboter dragon which is animated by magical ingredients, one of them the rare pigment
Phoenix Extravagant for destructive power, as befits an engine of war. Blood Circle, for loyalty to the Empire
Main protagonist artist Jebi additionally applied an extremely common pigment “Talkative Cicada” which let the dragon talk. The dragon is in the control of the Ministry of Armor, and broke and jobless Jebi is hired to fix the dragon. The role of the supervisor lies in the hands of the ministry’s duelist prime, beautiful and resourceful Vei.
Jebi puzzled over that. How did dueling relate to art? But then, they’d never understood the intricacies of Razanei administration, including the fact that every ministry had a duelist prime to defend its honor. Hwagugin didn’t practice the barbaric art of dueling, given the choice. Of course, sometimes an offended Razanei duelist didn’t give a Hwagugin that choice.
Razanei represents the imperialistic Japan which ruled over Korean, represented by Hwagugin where the novel is set. This defines roughly the epoche in the beginning of the 20th century, just in a magical transformed world.
The author implemented a full bingo with these buzzwords to grab my attention and brought it fully to live. I immensely enjoyed this rich setting full of surprises.
Jebi becomes entangled unwillingly between loyalists of the Razanei imperium, appeasers, and open rebels, blowing with the wind each time a new protagonist comes up. They is clearly the likable hero, although not a very wise one.
Wait, what, “they is the hero”?
Yes, Jebi is non-binary and chose the singular-they as their gender pronoun. This is a premiere for me, as I never before read a full novel with a non-binary main protagonist. I have to confess, that I needed to get used to this uncommon pronoun and would have preferred a softer introduction (maybe similar to the hero’s transformation in The House of Styx) than this heavy-handed shock treatment.
THEY. IS. QUEER. The author made a bold statement with this work for the LBGTQ community which I totally respect. It stretched my tolerance, and I read and discussed a lot about it. Insofar, the author reached his goal. Retrospectively, I am willing to tolerate the somewhat degraded readability. There are not so many authors who can believably transport this important topic, and Yon Ha Lee is certainly a prime example. There are so many examples, where male authors write about female in a way that you can only scratch your head. In this novel, Yon Ha Lee did everything right: non-binary protagonist, their female lover and their sister are all strong characters not degraded by their gender.
As a story, it felt strange. Throughout the tension arc, I thought that this would be a perfect first part of a series. It developed very slowly, only to burst out into activity very late, just as you would expect in a series. But I found out that the book is a standalone, which wasn’t reflected in the prose.
The second negative point is the strange usage of Chekhov’s gun: the celestial court, situated on the Moon, didn’t really impact the story. It only gave a nice exotic flavor to the setting. But then, the ending was so strange and over-the-top (or should I say “over-the-Moon”?) that I could only wave it away.
Disregarding those two minor issues, I fully recommend reading this wonderful, exotic story with robot dragons, artists, and a rebellion.
Meta: isfdb. Publishing scheduled for 20.10.2020