If you like Anne McCaffrey’s DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN series and are looking for more of the same — elite society of beast-riders with a telepathic/empathic link between human and animal — then Nicki Pau Preto’s YA debut novel Crown of Feathers (2019), the first in a series of the same name, might be worth your time. If you’ve read enough of this type of book to pick out key plot points and character developments from seven leagues away, though, there won’t be much here to surprise you.
Veronyka and her older sister Val were orphaned as children by the war racking their country and raised by their grandmother until her recent death, at which point Val took responsibility for the pair. The two teenagers are desperate to join the ranks of the fabled Phoenix Riders, but doing so necessitates the successful incubation, hatching, and mind-bonding with ultra-rare phoenix chicks. When Val reveals the extent to which she requires control over her sister’s life, Veronyka runs away and discovers the secret enclave where the Phoenix Riders have been ensconced. They only accept male candidates, so she disguises herself as Nyk, a stablehand who’s willing to work hard for the opportunity to be sponsored into their ranks and whose friendly nature catches the eye of Tristan, a struggling apprentice Rider whose commander — his father — doesn’t know about his debilitating phobia of fire. Meanwhile, a press-ganged soldier and secret animage named Sev has to hide his innate ability to communicate with animals, making him the perfect blackmail candidate for a group of slaves who want to make use of his survival instincts to escape their captors.
Character-wise, it was sometimes difficult to engage with the three narrators. Veronyka and Val are locked into a one-sided manipulative and abusive relationship in which Val controls everything Veronyka does and feels. Veronkya’s story arc as Nyk goes about as expected, though I liked the ultimate resolution. Sev’s plotline seemed to be taking place in a completely different country, and it wasn’t until his last few chapters that I understood what function he serves to the plot; the conclusion of Crown of Feathers indicates that he may play a larger part in the forthcoming sequel. Tristan resents his father while simultaneously craving his approval, and the most interesting thing about him is his phobia, which creates a huge stumbling-block when it comes to fulfilling any of his Phoenix Rider duties and provides ample opportunity for bonding between himself and Veronyka/Nyk.
The plot itself is pretty standard, but it was difficult to understand sometimes why things were happening in the ways they did other than simple convenience. There’s no sense of risk, or that things won’t work out for the POV characters, but almost everyone else seems to be fair game for death, dismemberment, etc. Pau Preto overstuffs the story with familiar tropes like “girl dresses as a boy to achieve her dreams,” “questionable/abusive family dynamic hiding a huge secret,” “enslaved magic users forced to hide their abilities,” “an empire is in tumult and only these teenagers can save it,” “the love that dares not speak its name,” “persecuted warriors secretly protecting the empire and upholding centuries-old traditions in secret,” and more. I appreciated her addition of some LGBTQ characters, and I was on board for everything involving phoenixes, but there was a lot about Crown of Feathers that I’ve seen done before, and it was difficult to engage with a narrative with so few twists or novel approaches to time-worn elements.
Many narrative details are repetitive or unnecessary, weighing down what could have been a slimmer, stronger book without all of the diversions into so-and-so’s point of view, personal history, and the history of the Golden Empire. At the same time, for all of the world-building details about the great heroine Avalkyra Ashfire and the war between herself and her sister, I had no clear idea when, where, or why any of the conflict had happened, despite the fact that she reigned only a generation before. The effects of changes that have taken place since her death, like the banishment of the Phoenix Riders and the enslavement or murder of animages, seem like they would need more than sixteen years to fully implement and enforce across an entire civilization. And it was hard to believe that the Phoenix Riders have been desperately living in fear for their lives when their training compound is completely stocked with all manner of supplies, they have more recruits than they can make use of, and Veronkya finds them with no trouble whatsoever even though the current Empire spares no effort in attempting to hunt them down.
The extent of Crown of Feathers’ similarities to other titles and series on the market without doing much to stand apart from them disappointed me. I do know at least one subsequent book in the CROWN OF FEATHERS series is planned, so readers who enjoy this first volume will have that to look forward to.