Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Book Review: Pheonix Unbound by Grace Draven

Pros: good world-building, interesting characters

Cons: the world is brutal, begins with a rape

Gilene is the village of Beroe’s sacrifice for the Rites of Spring, and due to her ability to control fire, has been for the past few years. Her actions keep the other women in her village safe from harm but extract a severe price from her. When she’s recognized through her illusion spell by the Gladiator Prime Azarion, he blackmails her into helping him escape the coliseum and the Empire itself. As a fire witch, he needs her to reclaim his rightful place as heir to his clan.

This is a fantasy novel that follows the beats of a category romance novel. Despite it’s happily ever ending though, the world is brutal and the book itself begins by explaining that the heroine has been raped in the past as part of her duties as a sacrifice, while graphically showing the rape of the hero by the Empress, a scene I could have done without.

These actions set a tone for the book that I was never able to recover from. The author does a great job of showing how, over time, the couple begins to overcome their meeting (Azarion’s abduction and threatening of Gilene) to slowly kindle romantic feeling for each other. A fair amount of time passes over the course of the book, making this feel believable.

I really liked both Gilene and Azarion as characters. Gilene is responsible and pragmatic, even in the face of her imposed ‘duty’. The scene at the beginning where she disrobes, ready to be raped and done, is heartwrenching but really does show what a survivor she is. Azarion has lived through similar horrors and I was surprised that this was never used as a way to bring them closer together emotionally - that they never talked to each other (or other characters) as a way of dealing with and trying to heal from their traumas. I did like his determination and spirit and learning about his tribe was interesting.

Their rape is never formally addressed between them and thus hangs over everything they do. When they finally make love, Gilene thinks back to the last man she was with (ie, her previous rape). Not only is this off-putting to the reader it shows that she’s never really dealt with the trauma of the horrors she’s been through. Thinking back on this later, I wish the author had eased them into the physicality of sex as much as she’d eased them into their emotional connection. Yes, they share a bed and end up cuddling, but there’s no measure of, this is how sex with a willing partner differs from an unwilling, and I think the characters (and I as a reader) needed that. I also think it would have been interesting to see Azarion discuss how his only (only recent at any rate) experiences of sex were violent and filled with fear and anger, asking for advice on how to give (and feel) pleasure. I found it bizarre that the author would bring up such a heavy emotional event and then not try to show actual healing via therapy of some sort. Because as much as Gilene’s pragmatism makes her willing to undergo rape, that’s not the same as healing from it and being ready for an actual emotional and physical connection.

The world-building was very good. I liked that there are several types of magic and that some magics come with a cost. There are several interconnected political and economic groups (the Empire, various tribes, guilds, tradesmen). The Savatar were fleshed out as a people with a lot of customs setting them off from the Empire.

I loved that both characters get satisfying climaxes for their different plot arcs. The ending was great.

If you’re looking for a feel good, fluffy read, give this a pass. If you like grimdark fantasy but want more romance, this is for you.

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