Book Review: Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven + Giveaway
***The giveaway is now over, thanks to everyone who entered!***
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Series: Book 1 of Fallen Empire
Publisher: Ace Books (September 25, 2018)
Length: 384 pages
The first and only other book I’ve ever read by Grace Draven is Master of Crows, and clearly she has come a long way in the almost ten years since then. What hasn’t changed at all though, is her knack for writing a swoon-worthy fantasy romance. Speaking of someone who typically stays away from this subgenre, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Phoenix Unbound.
Set in a world inspired by the bloodier and more decadent elements of the Roman Empire, this story follows the journey of two people thrust together under unfortunate circumstances. Every year during the Rites of Spring, the capital holds a lavish festival in which a great bonfire ceremony takes place requiring each village to offer up a young woman as sacrifice to be burned alive. However, the village of Beroe has a secret: for the last five years, they have sent the same woman. Gilene is her name, and as a fire witch, she cannot be burned. Using her magic, she changes her appearance, takes her place on the pyre, and then conjures up an illusion of a grand inferno to mask her escape so that she can survive to do it all over again in a year’s time. While this process is painful, demoralizing, and traumatic, Gilene sees it as her sacred duty to perform, as it means sparing the other young women in her village a horrifying fate.
But this year, she did not anticipate Azarion. For close to a decade, he has been forced to fight in the brutal arenas to satiate his empress’s bloodlust, becoming a gladiator of much renown. And for some reason, he can see through Gilene’s illusions. Using her as a key to his escape, Azarion kidnaps Gilene after the ceremony, threatening to expose her secret if she doesn’t accompany him back to his village and help him reclaim his birthright. Trusting in his people’s reverence for fire witches, he hopes that Gilene’s support would allow him to challenge for the role of clan head, a position that was his before a traitorous cousin sold him into slavery. Thinking of Beroe and her own family, Gilene has no choice but to do what he says, realizing that the sooner Azarion can get his revenge, the sooner she can return home and prevent more death. What she didn’t foresee, however, was how the idea of home would also change for her.
I’ll admit it. There’s a lot of fantasy romance fiction out there that makes me want to cringe, tear my hair out with frustration, or roll my eyes at the cheesiness of it all. Apparently though, I’ve just been reading all the wrong books. Phoenix Unbound is proof that good writing can make all the difference. Building a believable, complex romance is an art, and too many authors try to rush the process without first establishing a connection between the characters. It is a step that becomes even more critical when considering relationships like the one between Gilene and Azarion. Hate-to-love romances are immensely popular, but I find they also get bungled a lot in many books, mainly because timing and rhythm have to be just right. Happily, Draven doesn’t miss a beat. Readers already know Gilene and Azarion will fall in love, but the narrative makes them (and us) work for it, drawing out their courtship and delaying the gratification until the two characters are emotionally invested in each other, and we’re emotionally invested in them.
This does mean the romance takes longer to develop, but it’s worth it, and I think the results speak for themselves. Far from making me want to cringe (or tear my hair out, or roll my eyes) the final scene in the book almost moved me to tears because it was so perfect and beautiful. Plus, I can’t say the measured pacing of the romance really bothered me at all, since there was so much else going on in the story to occupy my attention. Despite some of the more well-trodden tropes, there are many other aspects of the book that feel genuine and unique, like the personalities of the characters, both major and minor. Each person comes across as real and lived-in, with distinct attitudes, motivations, strengths and flaws. Draven also brings her Fallen Empire world to life with lushly described details and stunning imagery, instilling feeling into her environments which provides an extra emotional layer to the events and character interactions playing out on the page.
My point is, Phoenix Unbound isn’t simply about a love story. It is the full package. Grace Draven has been working hard at her craft, and it shows. This book is full of beautiful and tragic moments, scenes of both ferocious violence and intense passion. The exquisite slow-burning romance between Gilene and Azarion is balanced with outstanding characterization and world-building, fueling my enthusiasm and interest in the story as its developments unfolded. Fantasy romance authors and readers take note, because this is the way it should be done. This novel drew me in completely, and I hope we’ll be seeing more from this universe.
Phoenix Unbound Giveaway
And now time for some fun! Since I enjoyed Phoenix Unbound so much, I want to share the love with a copy I’m putting up for giveaway. With apologies to our international readers, due to the costs of shipping, this giveaway is open to residents of the US only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of the book. To enter, all you have to do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your Name and valid Mailing Address using the subject line “PHOENIX UNBOUND” by 11:59pm Eastern time on Sunday, September 30, 2018.
Only one entry per household, please. The winner will be randomly selected when the giveaway ends and then be notified by email. All information will only be used for the purposes of contacting the winner and sending them their prize. Once the giveaway ends all entry emails will be deleted.
So what are you waiting for? Enter to win! Good luck!