This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend. Read the full disclosure here.
Book: “Phoenix Unbound” by Grace Draven
Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!
Book Description: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.
Review: For the most part, I’ve really loved Grace Draven’s books. Nothing has quite lived up to “Radiance,” but it’s definitely a win when I’ve read a good number of books from one author and never actively disliked any of them. This trilogy (comprised of three stand-alone books set in the same world with overlapping characters) is due to be finished up this coming November, so I thought it was a great time to dive in and set myself up to review that last book when it comes out (if all goes well with the first two books, of course!) And I’ll say, if the second one is like the first, I’m definitely already excited for November to come!
It is the Empire’s cruel tradition: each year, every village must sacrifice one of its women to travel to the capitol and be sacrificed on the pyre for the entertainment of the masses. But one village has been able to escape that fate, for they have a fire witch, a woman blessed with fire abilities and able to survive this doom. Only to have to relive the horror each and every year. But this time, when Gilene travels to the city to meet her fate, she is unmasked by the famous gladiator, Azarion, and he has a deal for her: together, they will escape this awful place and he will reclaim his birthright. But Gilene knows that whatever this man promises, she must return to her village before another girl is sent to her death.
Honestly, I didn’t really look at the book description too much for this one before I went in. Part of that is due to my general comfort level with the author: Draven regularly writes romantic fantasy that is approachable and entertaining. The other part was…I don’t know, laziness? Either way, it made the reading experience interesting. For one thing, I’ll say this book was darker than I had expected. Yes, said skipped book description mentions the fact that women are regularly burned alive in some sadistic festival every year. But it fails to mention that the same women are offered to the gladiators the night before for their entertainment. Thus, our heroine’s yearly horrendous experience includes not only walking to her “death” with other women who she knows won’t survive the experience like she will, but she must also allow herself to be assaulted every year. And her magical abilities do nothing to lessen this part of her ordeal. So yes, that’s a dark thought. Even more so since Gilene is not the first fire witch of her village, and she doesn’t expect to be the last.
Her entire journey, even once she has escaped with Azarion, is about her single-minded focus on returning to her village to spare another innocent woman this fate. And knowing that another girl will be born who will have to be trained to take up this horrific mantle after Gilene becomes too old to accomplish it. Her courage in the face of this reality is incredible, but we also see her grapple with the anger that would come in belonging to a village that so fully takes advantage of her abilities. It’s a tough balance, because Gilene acknowledges the lack of real choice before her people, but also simmers with rage that her existence is so reduced to this object of torment to spare others who spend the rest of the year uncomfortably looking away from her with shame. It’s a very interesting exploration of humanity under the pressure of terrible choices.
I also really liked the romance at the heart of this story. It’s a true slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers story. While Gilene and Azarion aren’t necessarily true enemies in the basic sense of the world, they do have opposing goals and spend much of the first half of the book at odds with one another. Their growth to understand and care for each other feels natural and a product of the journey they take together. Each has been brutalized by the cruel Empress and her regime, but that alone isn’t enough to form a lasting relationship. Indeed, in some ways, each is less trusting than they would be due to the nature of their experiences. The growth and slow-gained love for one another is beautiful and heart-warming.
The story also doesn’t take the easy way out in its solutions for the problems thrown at our main characters. The world they live in is brutal, and the power structures they are up against are strong and persistent. I really liked the bittersweet nature of the final fourth of the book. There were no easy solutions presented, and each character remained true to themselves and their goals, neither sacrificing their core essence just because of their romance. But it also ended in a very satisfying way. I can also see easily who the next character will be in the second book, and am very excited to read her story! Fans of Grace Draven or romantic fantasy should definitely check this one out!
Rating 8: A bit darker than I expected, but with two strong main characters and a swoon-worthy romance, this one is definitely a win!