Joint Review: Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven

Reviewed by Jen & Ronelle

Jen: I first fell in love with Grace Draven’s writing when I read Radiance a few years back, and though I have liked some of her books better than others, I can say that she consistently creates worlds that are interesting, unique, and completely immersive. That is certainly the case here. From the lands, to the cultures, to the religions and rulers, everything comes together seamlessly in Phoenix Unbound. And each of those elements are a vital part of the whole.

Our heroine, Gilene, is a fire witch. She is able to manipulate fire and illusions to her will, but she doesn’t use them for her own benefit. She uses them for her village. Every year, the Empire forces all of the towns to give up a portion of their women as tributes and sacrifices. The so-called Flowers of Spring are first given to the gladiators to be used, then sacrificed on the pyre to gain the favor of the gods. For years now, Gilene has been changing her appearance to serve as one of the tributes. The fire won’t kill her, after all, but she suffers plenty… first being raped, then enduring burns and scars for using her gifts.

But there is one man who sees through her illusions. Azarion is the Gladius Prime, the top of the gladiator food chain and he sees Gilene not only hide her identity, but manipulate the fire around her. Despite his strength, he is every bit the slave she is. In fact, his lot is worse than hers. He’s spent 10 years at the Empire’s tender mercies, not only fighting for his life in the arena, but being abused and raped by the empress. He sees Gilene as his one chance for escape.

Getting him out isn’t enough, though. He needs her to come back to him to his homeland, believing her touched by the goddess. Once he uses the illusion of her favor to get him reinstated as chiefton of his people, he will finally let her go home.

So this is an enemies to lovers story. After all, the hero is basically kidnapping the heroine and bending her to his will. It was a miracle she didn’t torpedo his efforts (because I think she could have if she set her mind to it.) But Azarion is a good man—driven by his own agenda, for sure—but he wants to set things right for his people and he believes he has no choice in what he’s doing. It’s easy to get in his corner.

Gilene, meanwhile, is a bit harder to relate to. She is fighting tooth and nail to return to a town which doesn’t seem to care for her one iota. Yes, I get that she feels a responsibility to her family, but as she falls for Azarion and his people, it gets harder and harder to be ok with her sacrificing herself over and over again. Yet, that is her plan and her priority.

Ronelle: This…this was not one of my favorite Grace Draven books. Don’t get me wrong; like Jen, I loved the vivid world-building (something I consistently enjoy about Ms. Draven’s books) and am curious to see if there is more to come. The cultures were unique, most of the characters were nicely dimensional, and the slow-burn romance was perfectly paced. However, also like Jen, I found Gilene hard to relate to. I kept asking myself why the hell she was working SO hard to protect her village and family when it was quite clear from the jump that their connections/affections were tepid at best. Seriously, why devote your life to people you don’t even like? Loyalty like that is normally a great trait for a heroine, but in this case it was single-minded, limiting, and just plain frustrating. And since that misplaced, blind loyalty was so integral to the enemies-to-lovers thing….

I also found myself wondering if perhaps Phoenix Unbound was initially meant to be released in segments or even multiple books. For one thing, it was broken into parts that seemed rather self-contained. The writing was ridiculously repetitive, which is not something I’m used to seeing from Ms. Draven; her narratives usually flow almost effortlessly from beginning to end, with very little–if any–hesitation or mid-book sag. Phoenix Unbound was different. It was almost as if she (or perhaps an editor) didn’t trust the reader to remember recent history from one chapter to another. After awhile, the information just felt like filler and did nothing to advance the plot, character motivations, or romance. WE GET IT, THE EMPIRE IS AWFUL AND DID AWFUL THINGS TO AZARION AND GILENE. MOVE IT ALONG ALREADY. Repetition aside, however, Azarion’s determination to upend the world and get some shit done really drove the plot in an interesting direction.

And speaking of Azarion…I loved him and his people. Sure, he was an ass in the beginning, but can you really blame him? Even when he was practically frog-marching Gilene across the kingdom, I liked him. And the stark differences between his family and Gilene’s were fascinating. They were also a lot more than the hints and shadows used to sketch in Beroe and Gilene’s crappy, selfish family. For some reason, I found myself picturing Azarion’s mother as the wise (and maybe a bit crazy) grandmother from Moana–she just had that sassy, strong, I’ll-put-you-in-your-place-before-you-even-know-what-hit-you way about her while also being incredibly kind and loving. Tamura was interesting as well, and I’d like to see more of her story.

Jen: I really enjoyed Azarion’s family as well! I enjoyed learning the culture of the Savitar people which was so richly drawn with various beliefs and traditions. The villains didn’t have the same kind of depth that the protagonists did, but they sure were easy to hate.

The romance between the two main characters is a slow burn, but that was ok, as Draven did such a good job making their emotional journey a believable one. And the ending both satisfied and still left me wanting more. I am very curious as to where the author will take this series next.

Ronelle: I had seriously mixed feelings about this one–I didn’t hate it, but it’s also no “Master of Crows”. If, however, there is more to come in this world, I’ll read it just to see if things get better.

Jen’s rating: B+

Ronelle’s rating: B-/C

*ARC provided by publisher

Click to purchase: Amazon

Phoenix Unbound
by Grace Draven
Release Date: September 25, 2018
Publisher: Ace

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