Hooray, we’re back on familiar ground. I would say it’s like a pair of nice, comfortable shoes you’ve been wearing forever but it’s more like taking a dump while constipated. Familiar certainly–it happens–but far, far, far from pleasant. And much like Cindy Pon’s debut, Fury of the Phoenix is about as relevant to feminism and female empowerment as bowel movements.
Fury’s narrative is divided into two stories: Zhong Ye’s and Chen Yong’s respective personal quests. You may notice that I don’t mention Ai Ling. There’s a good reason for that. She is there, literally, as a vehicle for men’s stories. I hope you are just as stunned as I am, which is to say not at all. It’s not a Cindy Pon book if women weren’t relegated to existing for, working for, and devoting all their lives to men.
For an overview the plot goes something like this: Chen Yong sets off for generic!Whitelandia, as covered in this post, and Ai Ling springs after him because she’s obsessed with him and has grown up into a stalker. In the meantime, through Ai Ling–whose soul was bound with Zhong Ye’s (rape attempts are such bonding experiences, don’t you think?)–we get deep, lengthy insights into Zhong Ye’s past, childhood, and character.
Because if it’s one thing I truly desire above all others, it’s an insight into a rapist’s thought process and inner compassion. We wouldn’t understand him otherwise you see, and if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s rapists being misunderstood and treated like scum. They have feelings too, you know? They are people just like you and me!
Excuse me while I go vomit. And yes, yes, Zhong Ye is honestly just misunderstood if you were wondering. We’ll get to that later. Let’s attack the merits of Pon’s writing first, which… hasn’t improved even by a fraction of a fraction. First, when she’s trying to do flowery writing we get things like this:
“Silver Phoenix, master.” She bowed elegantly, bringing to mind an orchid swaying in the breeze.
I’m not even sure what it means. Orchids aren’t particularly sway-y. The flowers generally remain stiff regardless of the breeze. But even putting aside trying to dissect this literally, this is still bad writing. Next, we get some hilarious word choices like:
He threw a backfisted punch and heard the sickening crunch of the assassin’s nose.
Back… fisted. I know what she’s trying to say. But like all those “eating sticks” (which are also back, the excitement I can hardly contain it) it merely comes off as unnecessary and faintly hilarious. I suggested to a friend that it’s a little like fisting but with more kink. Pon thankfully (?) has learned some variety with her chapter beginnings, though!
- Chapter Four: Chen Yong was still asleep when Ai Ling was woken…
- Chapter Five: Ai Ling’s eyes flew open. Chen Yong leaned over her,…
- Chapter Six: Ai Ling was preparing for bed when she heard thumping…
- Chapter Seven: They were taking the evening meal when a hoarse scream…
- Chapter Eight: The next afternoon the crew gathered to resume their shuen…
- Chapter Nine: It didn’t feel as if she had slept. She could…
- Chapter Ten: Chen Yong was anxious. She could tell by the set…
- Chapter Eleven: Dinner had consisted of creamy squash and potato soup, braised…
- Chapter Thirteen: Chen Yong wasn’t at the morning meal. Neither was Ah…
- Chapter Fifteen: Ai Ling woke to a soft chanting.
Ten out of eighteen chapters begin near-identically! Oh the delight, but at least this time Pon’s spicing it up a little with meals, so rather than all ten starting with Ai Ling going to bed/waking up, some of them are with Ai Ling eating instead. Be still, my heart.
Now let’s look at Ai Ling and other women.
Except, what women? In Ai Ling’s timeline, there is only one other female character, Ah Na, a white woman who makes Ai Ling jealous and who turns out to be a seductive whorebitchharpy who’s after Chen Yong just because he stands to inherit his father’s estate, and who fully plans to be unfaithful to him the first chance she gets (sigh). Otherwise Whitelandia, despite apparently being post-feminist, is entirely devoid of… women. Chen Yong’s father, Deen, apparently has no female staff around the house even. It makes for a very weird world-building and a thin setting, but then again we’ve already established that Pon has no talent at anything whatsoever.
Frighteningly, Zhong Ye’s sections turn out to be far more nuanced, complex and interesting than Ai Ling’s. In it there are two women of note: Mei Gui, an imperial concubine Zhong Ye is supporting and using for his rise to power, and Silver Phoenix, Mei Gui’s handmaid and his One True Love. In these sections Zhong Ye shows compassion and sympathy for Mei Gui. Silver Phoenix cares for and empathizes with Mei Gui. Both women are written with nuances and, unlike her reincarnation, Silver Phoenix is intelligent, bold, and strong (even though her raison d’etre is still mostly Zhong Ye). In fact, Zhong Ye’s part of the narrative is just written better all around, his relationship with Silver Phoenix is functional and healthy, and it’s almost as if Pon only really cared about this bit of the story.
It also means that Mr. Rapist has more empathy for women than Ai Ling.
Of note is the fact that Fury has more sexual content than Silver Phoenix, but they are all vaguely described. Compare that to the attempted rape in the first book, which is written in loving detail and described quite graphically. So… since all the consensual sex in Fury fades to black, this leaves us with an attempted rape as the most explicitly portrayed in two books.
“I know how I appeared to you.” He regarded her with an unreadable expression on his handsome face. “Like a monster. Just as she had feared—”
“I am not Silver Phoenix,” Ai Ling whispered. It was all that she could muster.
“No. You’re not. I thought—” Suddenly his shackles seemed to morph into giant snakes, their scales like emeralds. He didn’t notice. “I could make things right through you. You were her incarnation. If you loved me as she had…” He clenched his jaw, the cords of his neck taut. “I need your help, Ai Ling.”
Ai Ling felt her being shiver, vibrate like a lute string plucked. It was as if she had stepped away from herself toward Zhong Ye, as if she had split in two. The snakes binding his wrists reared their heads and hissed. She stroked his shoulder. Her fingers glided across his bare skin. He raised his eyes and gasped, caressing her face. His touch left a flourish of warmth on her cheek. “Silver Phoenix,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I tried. I tried to bring you back.”
Silver Phoenix brushed her hand over his. “I know.” She smiled at him, radiant, although her eyes shone with sorrow like his. “I know.”
“I couldn’t bear to see you become less and less of the man I love. The goddess granted me this one last chance, brought me back so I could see you, speak with you. I latched on to Ai Ling’s spirit when she touched the Mirror of Retribution and entered the underworld. I needed to explain in person. I killed you because I love you, Zhong, please believe me. It had to end.” Silver Phoenix’s image shimmered, grew brighter as she spoke.
“I do.” He clasped her hands in his. “I’ve failed you, love.”
Silver Phoenix’s full lips curved into a soft smile. “Do you…forgive me?” she asked.
“There’s nothing to forgive.” He drew Silver Phoenix to him. “Thank you.”
They stood together, his solid body embracing her insubstantial one, oblivious of everything except each other. Ai Ling couldn’t look away.
Oh no no no no no. No.
This scene is the books’ payoff. The reunion of the tragic lovers! The cumulation of Ai Ling’s adventure and her possession by Zhong Ye and her getting a long good look into his past. This is what the books are really about–not Ai Ling’s personal growth (of which there is none), not even Silver Phoenix’s story (because we see the past through Zhong Ye’s eyes). Nope. It’s all about Mr. Rapist. Who’s been riding Ai Ling’s spirit. Whose crimes are absolved and forgiven by both Ai Ling (remember that “he tried to rape me but in a twisted fashion he loved me” shtick?) and Silver Phoenix. The attempted rape goes unmentioned and unexamined because the gist of the thing here–the crux of the matter–is that Zhong Ye tried to rape a girl because his heart was broken by Silver Phoenix’s death and that he was deceived by Yokan; he comes across not as a despicable shit but a tragic fucking hero whose fall from grace was a result of external factors he couldn’t control. There’s zero accountability, but heaps of apologia.
NEWSFLASH CINDY PON, RAPE CULTURE, RAPE CULTURE DO YOU KNOW OF IT? PERPETUATING IT: DOING FEMINISM WRONG YOU STUPID FUCK, FOR SHIT’S SAKE IT’S DOING EVERYTHING WRONG
Oh, and to prove that she retains no hard feelings for Zhong Ye, when Ai Ling digs up his and Silver Phoenix’s personal effects, she does this:
She almost returned the jade box to the ground but on a whim took it with her. She wanted to have something that had belonged to Silver Phoenix. And although she would never admit it aloud, something from Zhong Ye as well.
WHY YES KEEPSAKES FOR ATTEMPTED RAPES, you know, one of those bonding experiences!
After this, what more can be said? The book isn’t very substantial and–affirming Ai Ling’s role as nothing more than Zhong Ye’s vehicle (you know, the guy who tried to rape her? Nice narrative decision there, Ms Pon)–nothing very much happens in Ai Ling’s sections. No really. There’s a fucking boring voyage that takes up ten chapters. There’s a multi-faceted and interesting exploration of culture shock and oh hahaha who am I kidding, all there is is the narrative chanting WEST IS BEST, WEST IS BEST because nothing bad ever happens to women in Whitelandia. The setting is bad, the plot is bad, the characterization is terrible and the one person who comes off as multi-dimensional is the rapist guy. Cindy Pon’s relentless mediocrity ratchets up to eleven. Oh, yeah, there’s the Ai Ling/Chen Yong romance which as always is unconvincing, dysfunctional, and faintly repulsive.
If my copy of this book had been physical rather than an .rtf, I would have burned it.
- non-hetero individuals: 0 (Pon totally supports her LGBT friends)
- larger or heavier women: 1 (a white woman has “ample bosom”; otherwise all women in the book are petite or dainty)
- tall or muscled women: 0
- white features othered: 3
- Asian features othered: ∞
- negatively written men: 1
- heroic, trustworthy, friendly men: ∞
- women Ai Ling doesn’t hate (barring women in rapist’s flashbacks): 0
- major female characters: 3
- major male characters: ∞
I don’t get all the people who go oooohhhh-ahhhh over Ai Ling’s love for eating, because check out Fushigi Yuugi’s Miaka and Sailor Moon’s Usagi, both of whom being teenage girls who love to eat. Like Ai Ling, they never gain weight. I know, anorexia and social pressure for women to be thin, but imagine what’d happen if real-life women could magically never gain weight. Ever. I suspect a lot of us will be in quite the frenzy of om fucking nom on everything in sight, because delicious things are delicious. Problem is, barring superhuman metabolism, living, breathing women do gain weight–we’ve a greater propensity to accumulate fat than men even–so a lot of us have body image issues. Fictional girls who never gain weight (either because they’re supernatural or just because they’re fictional)? Of fucking course they will have no body image issues related to their eating or weight. Duh?