The Krael Empire is a brutal and corrupt kingdom, reminiscent of the Roman Empire, with leaders who are intent on expanding its borders by conquering its neighbors. Inside its borders, life is nightmarish for those of its people who get the short end of the stick … like Gilene and Azarion. Gilene is a young woman from a small village with a deep secret, known only to the other villagers. She has a magical affinity for fire, as well as the ability to create illusions, where she takes on the appearance of someone ― or something ― else. These powers come in handy each year when the Krael emperor and empress hold the Rites of Spring, forcibly collecting women from each village to be a “Flower of Spring.” The name glosses over the actual fate of these women: they spend a night being raped by the kingdom’s enslaved gladiators, and the next day they are sacrificed, burned alive in a bonfire as an offering to the gods, along with the bodies of the gladiators who lost their battles to the death in the previous day’s battles.
Gilene represents her village of Beroe each year in the terrible Rites of Spring, suffering through the night of rape, but then escaping the next day through an illusion when the bonfire burns its highest, only to return the next year, and the next after that. Though the fire doesn’t directly burn her, she pays a painful price each time she exercises her magical power over fire. Though she hates it, she bows to the emotional pressure from her village to do this each year, since no one else has the power to do what she does.
Azarion is the Gladius Prime, the best of all the gladiators. Ten years ago he was betrayed by a relative in his own land, kidnapped and sold into slavery. His reward for winning his battles and killing countless opponents is to be physically abused, whipped and then raped by the sadistic Krael empress ― a scene that is graphically depicted in the second chapter.
Why yes, this book has a really brutal beginning. Why do you ask?
After this extremely rough start, things settle down somewhat for our main characters. Azarion has the ability to see through Gilene’s illusions, and concocts a plan to use her ability to escape slavery and return to his kingdom. He selects Gilene as the woman to spend the night with him, but instead of assaulting her he blackmails her into helping him escape. Instead of letting her go afterwards, he kidnaps her and carries her off to his country, planning to use her ability to help him win the leadership of his nomadic clan. Gilene is not interested in what he’s offering, but Azarion isn’t giving her any choice in the matter. They head to his homeland called the Sky Below, passing through a colossal wall of flame called the Fire Veil that magically protects the western border of their land from the Krael Empire.
The rest of Phoenix Unbound (2018) follows a fairly familiar fantasy path. Azarion’s clan leads a fairly traditional nomadic lifestyle, except for the group of revered women who, like Gilene, can magically control fire. Both Gilene and Azarion have challenges to overcome, he with his leadership ambitions and she in proving herself as one of the agacin, a woman who controls fire. They gradually and somewhat predictably fall in love, but they may not have a future together because she feels morally obligated to return to her village before the next spring equinox, so no other villager will have to die in her stead. The pacing in the middle section of the book lags somewhat as the primary focus shifts to their relationship, but picks up again for an exciting climax and moving dénouement.
Phoenix Unbound is a magical fantasy with a sweet, slow-burn romance between its two emotionally damaged protagonists, both of whom have suffered a great deal. However, it’s only for readers who don’t mind a strong side of brutality and grittiness. If this were a movie, it would get a pretty hard R rating for violence, murder, explicit sex (both consensual and non-consensual), human sacrifice, sexual sadism, and language. The first few chapters are by far the roughest, so if you can handle reading those, you’re probably fine for the rest of the book.
Though Phoenix Unbound is the first book in Draven’s FALLEN EMPIRE series, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger and it would be fine as a stand-alone read. Though I’m interested in seeing where the series goes next, I’m also leery of the high level of harsh explicit content, so it’s a toss-up right now as to which side of the wall of flame I’ll come down on.