Fox & Phoenix is the first book in Lóng City, a new YA fantasy series by Beth Bernobich. It was published earlier this month (hardcover, ebook, audio book) and follows the events of the short story “Pig, Crane, Fox.” This story was originally published in the anthology Magic in the Mirrorstone and can be read for free on Smashwords. As there are spoilers for this story in the book, there will also be spoilers for it in this review. I do recommend reading the story before the book since I think knowing what happened before helps set up the novel.
Once upon a time, Kai won a contest thrown by the king by granting three impossible wishes. The prize was a lot of money and marriage to the princess Lian, who it turned out wanted to go study politics at the university instead of getting married. For the third impossible wish that made him the winner, Kai got the princess her heart’s desire. He and the friends who helped him got the monetary reward and the friendship of the princess. They should have lived happily ever after.
Instead, nothing has turned out as Kai expected. He didn’t get the girl he liked, Yún, who had been second in command in his street gang and aided him on his quest. In fact, even though they’re both now studying magic as apprentices to Kai’s mother, they’ve become further apart and hardly talk anymore. Plus Kai finds being an apprentice is dreadfully dull.
Then Kai’s mother disappears without a trace. When Kai becomes concerned and goes looking for her, he is visited by the king of the ghost dragons. The whole city has heard that the king is sick, but the dragon tells Kai he is dying and that the Princess Lian must come home. Since Kai is her friend, the ghost dragon is counting on him to travel to Phoenix City and retrieve her. Kai is confounded by this request, but he’s not foolish enough to argue with any sort of dragon, especially a king, so he sets out to bring Lian back to Lóng City.
In “Pig, Crane, Fox” a very traditional sort of fairy tale is given a few key differences. The quest Kai undertakes is very conventional: the three impossible tasks that must be completed in order to win a fortune and the hand of the princess. Yet Kai doesn’t achieve these tasks through superhuman cleverness and individual achievement. It’s a team effort and it takes help from his friends for him to attain his goals – in particular, he couldn’t have won the contest without the help of Yún, the girl he liked who was instrumental in getting him the title of prince that got him into the palace . Furthermore, even though Kai does the tasks and wins, he and the princess Lian do not fall in love and mutually agree not to marry. Kai likes Yún, and the princess isn’t interested in marriage but is instead interested in education and learning how to be a good leader someday. This contest was all her father’s idea and in the end Lian exerts her independence and leaves home to go to school. It ends on a rather happy, promising note with Kai learning the truth about just how much Yún and his mother both aided him and the appearance that Yún may like Kai.
At the beginning of Fox & Phoenix, Kai is much more jaded, especially concerning fairy tales:
Once upon a stupid time, I liked fairy tales.
Ai-ya, what’s not to like? The poor kid from nowhere wins the jackpot, while the tilt-nosed snobs get turned into gargoyles. Or worse. But you know what? 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. And they never tell you how your heart’s desire might be a dangerous thing.
Or, in my case, just so damn boring.
This opening had me completely hooked and excited because I loved this idea of taking a character who used to enjoy fairy tales, then lived one, and found out that he didn’t live happily ever after. However, while there are some great ideas in this story I loved, I felt like it fell short in its execution. It never managed to engage me, even though I can appreciate some of the concepts and basic characterization put into the book. The story itself just never really managed to pull me in or make me care about the people involved. Part of this may have been because I was really expecting it to follow up more on the fairy tale gone wrong. While there was a little bit about that, it was really more of a new story about a quest to save a king than an exploration of fairy tales like the short story was.
It also had some rather uneven pacing. The beginning was strong, but then once Kai got his quest, it got bogged down in preparations for his journey and the actual trip to Phoenix City to find Lian. While I do think this is fitting with the idea that being part of a fairy tale isn’t all fun and games, it also didn’t make for very captivating reading. Once Kai got to Phoenix City, it got a lot less dull but it ended up feeling too long for the amount of story within, largely because of that chunk describing the time between the assignment of the quest and the actual arrival at Kai’s destination. There were times at the beginning and closer to the end that I found interesting, but it never made me feel like I just had to keep reading and find out what happened next.
One aspect of the story I did enjoy was how the characters were handled. They weren’t complexly drawn, but I did like how the main character wasn’t the smartest apprentice or the kid who was best at everything. Yún was actually the one who was smart, competent, and capable, and Kai was the one who took his studies less seriously and messed up more. In fact, I think most of the characters in the book had more maturity and awareness about the world than Kai did. I also liked that while it did what many YA books do in regard to having Kai’s mother absent as a character, she also still emerged as an important player – and in my opinion is the strongest, most incredible character in the entire story.
The world with its magic flux, animal spirits, and Chinese influence is compelling, but I also would have liked a few more details on how it worked. While I am glad there were not infodumps explaining it constantly, I did want to know more about the animal spirit companions in particular. Each character had one, and they usually appeared while the person was still very young. Kai having a pig spirit to talk was completely fun, but I found myself wanting to know much more about these companions – where they came from, what their purpose was, and how they came to be a companion for a specific human. Perhaps this will be explored later in the series.
Fox & Phoenix is full of some great concepts from its angle on fairy tales to its characters and its basic world structure, but it falls short in its execution. Despite some interesting ideas and a decent storyline, it never quite manages to be engaging with that special spark that made me want to know more and keep reading. While it had a strong beginning and a good ending, the middle really dragged, making it much longer than it needed to be for the story that was told. It was an ok book with some decent parts, but it’s not one that has me excited about the series like Beth Bernobich’s other novel Passion Play (which I thought was very readable and compelling despite some flaws and has me really curious about the next book).
My Rating: 5.5/10 – I keep going back and forth between “ok” and “somewhat good” because I felt like most of it was just ok, but there some aspects of the book I admired.
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher at the request of the author. (Quotes are from the excerpt on the author’s website since I never use quotes from unfinished copies of books.)