Phoenix Unbound sometimes burns and sometimes fizzles


Grace Draven’s Phoenix Unbound has some unique markers in its magic system, but much of the novel feels too dark particularly after this week.

Sometimes, a book feels perfectly crafted to meet the time of its release; a pick-me-up when you desperately need something unhappy. Phoenix Unbound, which includes rape in the stories of both of its characters and sent to me by Ace, feels like it’s been dragged down after a week that saw Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault accusation against Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

That’s not to say it’s a bad story, although it does cross into shades of what TVTropes would call Rape as Backstory in Gilene’s case, since this isn’t the first time she’s been to the capital of the Krael Empire to be sacrificed as a Flower of Spring. Because of that more compelling angle, though, the sexual assault portion of her backstory comes off as unnecessary. Then you get to Azarion, our male protagonist, who actually has his own assault shown on the page.

Their antagonists get their comeuppance, but it’s a long time in coming.

So yes, it’s a tough read, because without this, you’d still have a perfectly acceptable reason for both Gilene and Azarion to hate the Empire: she, because of her magic, is constantly sent out by her village as a repeated sacrifice, where she and other women are burned alive; he, meanwhile, has spent 10 years as a gladiator in the Pit having been sold into it by his evil cousin, with the Empress also his most frequent abuser. It’s all right there, and yet Draven chooses to go back to the other well almost as much if not more as these two motivations.

Despite that, Phoenix Unbound does have some things going for it, including the goddess Agna, who is important to Azarion’s people and eventually, Gilene as well. There’s also a queer romance incorporated, without it being the main trait of both characters (just one, who is mostly defined by her relationships to others, so perhaps only half points there). There are some efforts at good worldbuilding beyond just Agna, too.

Aside from that, both of our characters are damaged, and Draven doesn’t shy away from that, interrogating Gilene in particular and also looking at how Azarion has been changed by his decade away.

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But all of this is still strongly overshadowed, at least in this week, by what’s happening in national politics. It’s hard to say whether I truly enjoyed the good parts of Phoenix Unbound or merely found them less painful.