Yoon Ha Lee’s 2020 Phoenix Extravagant is a (thus far) standalone fantasy. It’s also a mecha adventure. It’s genre-fluid.
Six years ago, the Empire of Razan invaded and conquered Hwaguk, which then became the drab Administrative Territory Fourteen, Artist Jebi is a survivor. They apply for a name change (a Razan-acceptable name) and a job as an artist for the new administration. Jebi’s sister, a Hwaguk nationalist, disapproves but hey … Jebi is a realist.
Jebi does not get the position for which they applied. They get a job offer they cannot refuse.
The Empire swallowed up Hwaguk thanks to its command of magically animated automatons, golem-like creations that obey their creator’s every command. The commands are painted onto the automaton with special magical paint by specially selected artists. For reasons that will not be explained for some time, Jebi is chosen to be one of those artists and to work on a top-secret project.
Most automatons are shaped like humans but there is no intrinsic reason that they must be. The Ministry of Armor is developing a dragon-automaton. If it can be made to work, it will transform warfare. IF. The first field test of automaton-dragon Arazi ended in massacre. Issemi, the chief architect of the program, was one of those killed.
Jebi is ordered to redraft the magical icons that animate Arazi. Much to their dismay, Jebi learns that the magical paint is created by foul means, that Issemi’s original icons did not convey the commands that the ministry had prescribed, and that the government had tried to suppress this fact. It was this attempt at concealment that had resulted in massacre and murder.
Jebi realizes that one artist in the right place at the right time can change the world.
This is a secondary universe inspired by our own. Hwaguk could be Korea. Razan could be any of the various Asian powers who have invaded Korea over the centuries. The Westerners who inspired Razan’s career of conquest could be, um, the imperialist West.
That said, as brutal conquerors go, Razan isn’t all that bad. It’s brutal in pursuit of its own ends; it’s not given to pointless sadism. They aren’t building pyramids of skulls or using severed hands as currency. But their conquest of Hwaguk did kill a significant fraction of the population; their functionaries are willing to wipe out entire communities to prevent embarrassing revelations.
IMHO, this is a more straightforward work than the author’s Machineries of Empire . I had an easier time wrapping my head around magically animated constructs than I did understanding the calendrical physics in Machineries . The plot and setting were more immediately comprehensible. This may be a better starting point for readers new to this author than Machineries .