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.
I went into this one expecting a great combination of fantasy and romance and that’s what I got, so I’m very happy with this book.
The world-building on this one is interesting and is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, while Azarion’s people of the steppe remind me of our own steppe peoples but maybe that combined with some of the Germanic ‘barbarian’ tribes so famous for sacking the capitol. I think making the setting feel a bit familiar with its own unique twists is good here, because it allows us to concentrate on the plot and characters and not all of the intricacies of world-building.
Besides from the world, I enjoyed the way magic and other fantasy elements were incorporated into the story. The reason the Empire hasn’t conquered the Savatar lands is because they’re protected by a magical shield. Likewise, Gilene uses her magic to fool the Empire and protect her village as well as to disguise herself. I love the practical application of magic. There isn’t so much of a ‘magic system’ other than some women are born with fire magic, blessed by the gods. A few others can do some smaller magics. And ghosts and wights and other things exist. I like when there aren’t too many rules to magic as long as it all feels consistent, as it does here.
But let me get to the stuff that I really loved about this book. The characters were great–they were layered and multi-faceted. Both Gilene and Azarion made me empathize with them and feel frustrated with them and their decisions at times. They’re actually a lot alike as characters–stubborn to a fault, goal-oriented, have specific plans that they don’t want to let others get in the way of–which is one of the reasons I think they clash so much in the beginning, because their goals are not aligned. Well, and also the whole kidnapping thing. Speaking of that, I love the way that is handled. That is to say that I wish there wouldn’t have been a kidnapping at all, because it’s such a bad trope in Romance, looking back, BUT, it’s handled really well here. The romance in this is a slow burn–it takes quite a while before things start to develop between the two of them and for that I’m glad. I don’t think I could have respected either one of them as much if they just fell in with each other after Azarion captured her and took her home to his people as a means to further his own goals. They both have some great character growth which leads them to overcome certain things and become better people. I think Gilene’s growth was interesting because it was so gradual, but it was illustrated well at the end when she realized how much she’d changed from the previous year and how the things that had been important to her no longer mattered as much.
There’s more than one obstacle in this book that keeps things moving, more than one antagonist. You have, firstly, the Empire and their abhorrent practices of slavery and human sacrifice. Aside from something nebulous like the entire empire and their ideals, you also have the Empress, a woman that gets off on cruelty that she inflicts on others. Back at Azarion’s homelands, we have his cousin who had treacherously sold him off as a slave while usurping his rightful place as leader of their clan. Gilene’s biggest obstacle is actually Azarion, for a while at least. I shouldn’t really be surprised at how much is in play here, the intricacies of the plot, because I’ve read some of Grace Draven’s books before and while she’s absolutely fantastic at writing romance, she’s also great at creating stories that are layered with multiple story lines going on and making it all work.
I think the pace of the book was interesting. It starts off very fast paced, with a chase, and then once they arrive at Sky Below, the pace does slow down a bit. This allows for all that character growth and for the relationships to build, so it’s not a bad thing and some of my favorite parts, but some folks may find those parts a bit slow. Then the pace picks up again as Gilene’s magic returns and we’re no longer in a holding pattern. Plans are set into motion and all of a sudden a lot is happening again. I actually love the way Gilene’s magic needing time to replenish gives us the perfect excuse to slow things down a bit and work on parts of the story that are more slice of life and to focus on the characters rather than plot.
Overall, I really enjoyed Phoenix Unbound. As always, looking forward to reading more from Grace Draven in the future. 4.5/5 stars.
Many thanks to the publisher and netgalley for providing a copy for review purposes. This did not affect my opinions of the book or my review in any way.