The Phoenix Crown

Written by Janie Chang Kate Quinn
Review by Sarah Hendess

On April 4, 1906, 32-year-old opera singer Gemma Garland arrives in San Francisco, hopeful that her new contract with the Metropolitan Opera traveling company will revitalize her dwindling career and excited to reunite with her old friend Nellie. But when she arrives in San Francisco, Nellie is gone without a trace.

Meanwhile in Chinatown, 19-year-old Feng Suling is nursing a broken heart. Her love, Reggie, abandoned her without a word of farewell, and Suling is about to be married off as the third wife of a much older man. Desperate to raise money to escape San Francisco, Suling embroiders small pieces for the city’s white gentry. She lands a job repairing a silk robe taken from a Beijing palace for wealthy businessman Henry Thornton and meets Gemma, who became Thornton’s mistress after he promised to launch her career.

The women soon discover a link between the disappearances of Nellie and Reggie and realize they’ve been caught up in a nefarious scheme. As they race to rescue themselves and their friends, the infamous earthquake rips the city apart, and Thornton disappears, along with the titular Phoenix Crown—another looted Chinese antiquity. The women know they’ll never be safe until Thornton is brought to justice.

Action-packed, this novel skillfully uses its strong female leads to examine racism, sexism, and classism. Quinn and Chang seamlessly blend their voices to explore opera, Chinatown, and the effects of the great earthquake on the city of San Francisco. The appearance of the real-life Alice Eastwood, the mildly eccentric, no-nonsense curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences, adds an additional strong female lead with a light touch of humor. Readers won’t want to put this one down.