Recent Reading: Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith

Okay, I agree you were all perfectly right to push me toward this series when I was not initially all that inclined to pick it up. Great sibling relationships, you said. Positive! Upbeat! Good guys win! I don’t remember exactly what you all said, but that was the general impression I got from your various comments. I enjoyed it very much and whipped through all four books in quick succession. I don’t exactly remember where one leaves off and then next starts, so just take this as comments on the whole series.

Some of you mentioned that the first book, Fledglings, reads like a MG story.

I can see that, but in fact for me it didn’t really feel MG. I think this may be due to the deep, complex, non-European setting, in which the attitudes of a child are quite unusual by current standards. All that filial devotion! Ari is at that point so willing to subordinate her future to her older brother’s glorious destiny. And she works so hard, and accepts that as normal, and basically the story sidesteps easy categorization as MG/YA/adult. Though the series as a whole would be shelved in YA, if you had to put it somewhere, because Ari and the others start off as children but step inexorably into adult roles as the series continues. That’s YA structure, not MG.

So, let me see …

a) The characters

We have four main protagonists, but this isn’t evident at once. In the first book, Mouse – Ryu/Ari/Firebolt – is by far the primary protagonist. By far. This is true even though we do get little snippets from many other points of view. In the second book, we start to get extensive sections from Second Brother’s (Yskanda’s) pov. From then on, he and Mouse … Ryu … not sure what to call her, actually … okay, her name at the end is Ari, so I’ll go with that. So, from the second book onward, Yskanda and Ari take the lion’s share of the narrative, with First Brother, Muinkanda, and particularly First Imperial Prince Jion also acting as secondary protagonists, plus a good number of other minor points of view from other characters. POV is actually omniscient, but it still makes sense to talk about primary, secondary, and so on because the narrative certainly does focus much more on Ari, Yskanda, Jion, and Muinkanda, in pretty much that order. We just get glimpses into everyone else’s thoughts and feelings.

How does it work, starting with the focus narrow, centering Ari like that, and then gradually broadening as the story progresses?

It works great! Sticking to one primary pov protagonist in the first book is a great idea! That works so much better for character readers like me than trying to spread the pov out from the beginning, at least if the reader enjoys the character. I liked Ari. She’s interesting and believable – for certain values of “believable” that edge into “maybe a little too good to be true.” She’s believable in context, let’s say.

Yskanda works just as well. I was not as interested in him at first. In fact, I think I was repelled by his claustrophobic circumstances, because he’s a prisoner. And by his distractibility, as early on when he’s handed a remarkable chance at escape, he basically gets distracted by butterflies and doesn’t even try to escape. (Not butterflies, but something pretty and trivial that you should not stop to admire during an escape attempt.). I was rolling my eyes pretty hard during that scene. He grew on me, though. Also, fortunately, as the story progresses, Yskanda’s cage becomes thoroughly gilded and as soon as he finds his feet, I think the reader can see that there’s no need to worry about him, even though he’s got plenty to be worried about in story terms.

Anyway, my disinterest in Yskanda quickly wore off and I got quite involved with his story. I liked Muin too, though he’s a minor character comparatively; and I sort of think possibly Imperial Prince Jion might have been my favorite character, which I did not quite see coming. I liked his complex relationship with his father the Emperor and the conflict that set up. Really, Jion, not Arikanda, Yskanda, or Muinkanda, is the character placed in the most conflicted position, both because of his relationship with his father and his relationship with one of his sisters, whom Jion wants to love, but sheesh, she is not at all a nice person.

While I’m thinking of the Emperor, I will add, this is a story where the good guys are mostly very good and the bad guys are mostly really bad, and I grant that is simplistic, sure, though also satisfying.

On the other hand, I put the word “mostly” in there for a reason. The Emperor is complex and becomes a lot more sympathetic as the story progresses. I think this is pretty believable? Although if you read all four books in quick succession, I also could see a reader feeling that some of the early scenes featuring the Emperor do not necessarily quite match up with his character the way he develops later. Also, the way his whole family and all his intimate servants and everyone are so focused on his moods, on not making him mad, implies the Emperor is a fearsome tyrant, yet he really doesn’t act that way toward all these people. I mean, “benevolent” might be going a little far, but he doesn’t go around shouting Off with their heads either. Anyway, I liked him. Fei Anbai,head of the Emperor’s spies and interrogators, also becomes both more complex and more sympathetic as the reader sees more of him. That was unexpected. I liked that a lot.

b) The world

You know this story is inspired by xuanhuan literature, probably. I’m not familiar with that literary tradition, or I wasn’t. I guess I’m more familiar with it now. Anyway, Asian-inspired, but this is an alternate Asia. The Empire of the Thousand Islands. Great setting, just tremendous worldbuilding, ranging from details of daily life through important rituals to metaphysics. This is very much a world that feels deep and real, that you feel you could visit if only the right portal appeared.

c) The plotting

The pacing worked for me, though the long periods spent on training and daily life probably wouldn’t appeal to some readers. The story feels like it’s about daily life, growing up, and interpersonal relationships more than about defeating evil. Or, let’s say, the decision to defeat evil is a lot more important than actually defeating evil. There are several serious villains, but when the good guys encounter them, the villains are defeated in short order. I think it’s fair to say that this could make many plot elements feel rather like afterthoughts compared to worldbuilding, daily life, and particularly the development of relationships. This worked great for me because to me the defeat-the-villain parts can be satisfying, but are rarely the parts that draw my attention the most.

Anyway, the plotting worked fine for me, though I can imagine that some aspects wouldn’t necessarily suit some readers.

The single plotting element I most appreciated was the way the phoenix feather was not meant for any one person, but was passed from hand to hand at the end. That was lovely.

d) The writing

Omniscient pov will never be my favorite. I like close third best. But this story did feel much like close third, with omniscient snippets around the edges. That worked quite well for me. Everything Sherwood Smith writes where the focus is mainly on one or a few characters is likely to work better for me than anything where the focus is more diffuse. Well, I can think of exceptions; but basically that’s likely to be the case. This is one reason I love Stranger to Command far more than some of her other books. I enjoyed this series almost as much as that one, and in some ways more.

If you do like omniscient pov, then here you go, an excellent example. I should write a post pointing out good examples of omniscient pov fantasy because it’s hard to pull off. I can think of one more author who writes outstanding omniscient pov right off. I’ll have to see if I can come up with a few more examples.

There are a surprising number of typos. I wish I’d had a chance to proof these books myself. Not that I would have caught everything, obviously, you know how that goes. But I’d have caught what I did catch; eg, about a dozen typos per book. In other ways, of course the writing is excellent. Many beautiful descriptive passages contribute to the immersive feeling that this is a real world.

e) Flaws

Okay, I must admit I sort of felt Yaso was over the top. I mean, really?

Next, a mild spoiler. Really, this should be only mildly spoiling, but just so you know.

Mild spoiler okay?

Then fine, look, I understand why Jion was so slow to suspect his sister of real treachery. I realize that his memory of her when they were children got in the way. I see that his revulsion at the thought of being emperor made him want quite desperately to believe she would be an excellent empress. I know the reader understands her much better than Jion does because we see snippets of her thoughts and feelings in a way he can’t. I guess it seemed believable that it took so very, very long for him, or anybody, to figure this out.

On the other hand … my goodness, it was totally obvious. I’m not sure how the author could have hidden this better from the reader while still playing fair, but yep, the second a specific plot element is mentioned in passing, it’s really obvious. There’s a good red herring because her actions are buried in with other nefarious goings on, but still.

The best thing about the sister is that she makes a really good villain, much better than the flashier villains we find in this story. Not sure whether this constitutes a flaw or not, but after a heck of a lot of slice-of-life story and a considerable amount of buildup, the Big Bad Guy – White Dragon – seems a bit of an afterthought. He makes his move, he’s defeated, and the reader may be left thinking, Wow, that was fast.

Or maybe not. The story really isn’t about defeating flashy bad guys. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself. If the villain seems an afterthought, well, yes, compared to the rest of life, all the things that really matter, sure, why not? Get him defeated and move on. There are several villains and they all come across a bit like that: Master Night? Ooh, scary – boom, dead. Cobra Sage? Yep, same thing. This feature, with flashy villains who are defeated almost as soon as the good guys actually encounter them, also makes Jion’s sister seem truly awful by comparison. She’s drawn in such a realistic way compared to the flashy villains. That means that her intense focus on herself and indifference toward others feels much more personal to the reader as well as to her brother. Plus we know her better since we see snippets from her pov – thankfully brief and scattered snippets.

What else? Let me see … All right, I will add that certain aspects of the denouement seemed overly pat, particularly the way the author clears the Emperor out of Jion’s way. That had a certain Deus ex feel to it, more so in some ways than when the gods actually do intervene. Worse, handling the Emperor in that way interfered with the scene I wanted to see between Danno and the Emperor. This is similar to wanting to write a sequel to a book I love — I want to write certain scenes that didn’t occur at the end of this series.

I wanted a scene between Jion and Fei Anbai because, uh, let’s just say there would reasonably be a certain amount of tension there, plus the who-watches-the-watchman question is raised but not answered. I think this is an important question and I would like to write a scene in which it is addressed.

But, more than that, as I say, I REALLY wanted a scene involving Danno and the Emperor. I wanted that in order to bring the Emperor himself to a better place with regard to that long-ago betrayal, and I wanted it because, given the prologue, that encounter would have bookended the story. I’d have ended the story with that scene and then made almost everything in the last chapter into an epilogue.

So, well, whatever, not like these missing scenes ruined the ending for me, it’s just that I know so clearly what they would look like that I wrote different versions in my head long before I got to the last chapter. I’m still doing that now, in fact, though I’ve moved on to the Gold Seer trilogy now, which yes, I still like a lot.

Anyway, overall … hmm. Overall, I guess I’d rate this series as about, oh, 4.75 stars, something around there. I enjoyed it a lot, I read it fast, and I’ll certainly read it again. I still love A Stranger to Command best, but yes, I think this series is now my second-favorite.

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7 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith”

  1. Yay! So glad you read it, and so glad you liked it! I agree with everything you just wrote. Although the first book was terrific- I love those kind of stories, similar to A Stranger in Command, the complex family relationships ship of Jion and his father and the court intrigue etc elevate this series for me to make it really something special. Agree with your comment about Danno and the emperor. I started following Sherwood Smith on Patreon for this series.

  2. SO GLAD you read it! And that you enjoyed it. Same as Alison above, I started following Sherwood on Patreon because I absolutely adored this series. Some minor flaws as you say, but overall so captivating and such a beautiful homage to xuanhuan, really brought me back to my childhood. I’ve always loved her court intrigues, hidden things not said and even the training scenes. I thought this was so unusual with the familial piety and romance but not domineering. Every morning I looked forward to a new chapter, and then when the whole book was published, I looked forward to reading it in its entirety. Definitely a favorite for me, and reminded me of the sibling relationship and the quiet romance in Floating Islands series, which is also a favorite.

  3. I enjoy training scenes and I loved this very different point of view regarding a military school. And yes, everyone was right about the great family relationships! I hadn’t thought about the way the romance was so low-key, but it certainly was and that’s another aspect of the story that I enjoyed.

  4. Yes to all that’s been said, and I’m glad you liked it. I found it almost a relief that the story didn’t dwell for long on taking down the bad guys. It left lots of room for the “slice of life” feel of the rest of the story, which was so well done and in such a marvelous setting. I think one of my favorite aspects is how each of the main characters had a passion – Ari for martial arts, Yskanda for visual art and Jiun for dance.It’s like seeing the world from a brand new perspective when an author can share insight on a calling I’m not familiar with. I would love to see the artwork Yskanda created. I had the same reaction when I read “Pillars of the Earth” – I didn’t love the story or characters so much, but the protagonist’s passion for architecture was fascinating, and compelling enough to keep me engaged to finish the book.

  5. Mary, yes, I was VERY happy to have each bad guy defeated in such short order. I so much preferred to have the focus be elsewhere. I hadn’t realized the Pillars of the Earth focused on architecture, but I’ll have to check that out, because I do enjoy stories where there’s a focus on that kind of thing.

  6. I liked the series, and the last book worked fine for me; I too prefer spending time on the developing characters and relationships rather than dwelling on defeating the bad guys.
    Before I read the last book, I thought the series could continue for many more books, maybe with each tackling a new (intermediate) obstacle while focusing on the next step in their journey of growing up and developing their characters and personalities as well as their relationships with family and friends, maybe taking turns with highlighting the other siblings and Jion (and perhaps his nice sister who got married off to the foreigners, if oldest brother got posted that way by the army).
    That would have left more room for all the interesting scenes that didn’t get included now, as well as following a lot more of the hints and possible threads scattered through the present story.
    I guess that is sort of the idea behind all those interminable anime and manga series with hundreds of episodes – I didn’t expect hundreds, but I definitely didn’t expect it all to be neatly rounded off in one book.

    IIRC I read somewhere that this was a project that the author took up to keep herself sane during the Covid-19 lockdowns, so maybe life starting up again meant she had to start spending her time on other things – in that case I am very grateful she wrote such a nice neat ending to the series that we don’t feel we got left dangling with too many threads unresolved.

  7. Oh, interesting thought, Hanneke: it did feel a little like it could have gone on longer but, “oh, I guess we’ll wrap it all up now.” But still a very satisfying ending. (I was a little surprised she chose that way to end Ari’s arc, but I decided I could roll with it.)

    I would really, really like to see Yskanda’s artwork!

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