I’ll confess at the start that I was not a fan of K. Arsenault Rivera’s first novel in the THEIR BRIGHT ASCENDANCY series, The Tiger’s Daughter, and came about as close as I can to just stopping at several points along the way. So it was with some trepidation that I began The Phoenix Empress (2018), book two of this Asian-influenced series. The good news is that the sequel improves on its predecessor in many ways. The bad news is the bar was pretty low, so my response through much of it was mostly just lukewarm. Spoilers for book one to follow.
Rivera picks up pretty close to the end of book one here, with her two main characters — Shefali and Shizuka (the titular ruler) — reunited after years of forced separation, thanks to Shizuka’s Emperor uncle exiling Shefali after she and Shizuka married. The uncle is gone now and Shizuka rules the Hokkaran Empire, albeit in a mostly drunken stupor. How she went from the vibrant, confident/cocky girl of book one to this drowning-her-sorrows Empress is half the story here. The other plot revolves around Shefali’s struggles with the demon-sourced “blackblood plague” she contracted in book one. She’s the sole survivor of that plague — which always, so far, turns its victims into shape-shifting, blood-thirsty monsters — but her hope for a cure has seemingly been quashed by a prophecy she received from a god that she will die in a few months’ time on her birthday. A prophecy she keeps from Shizuka through most of the novel.
The Tiger’s Daughter was a split story, one part a letter from Shefali recounting her years of experiences to Shizuka and the other part Shizuka reading the letter in real time. The Phoenix Empress is also a divided tale, with one half consisting of Shizuka explaining what happened to her during Shefali’s exile (war, magic, encounters with gods and demons, tragedy, grief, conflict with her uncle) and the other half occurring in real time as the two try to work their way back to their former relationship after such a long absence and as Shefali tries to overcome the plague threatening to erase her humanity.
The novel starts slowly, and I almost gave it up several times in the first 100-150 pages, especially considering my experience with book one. I don’t mind a rich slowness to a book; in fact, I often revel in it. But this wasn’t that sort of measured pacing. Instead I felt I was circling around the same things time and time again, growing ever more frustrated at the repetition and stagnation. The many what I’d call over-wrought proclamations (internal or spoken out loud) of love didn’t help, though I’ll grant one’s mileage may vary on that aspect. I kept going mostly because there was a sense, more so than in book one, that this story was heading toward something of interest — the tragedy that befell Shizuka — and because every now and then Rivera would dangle a well-written line that flashed enough talent to convince me not to quit quite yet.
And things did pick up at about the halfway point as Shizuka moves more into the story of her being forced into the role of General by her uncle, tasked with leading what her uncle hoped would be a suicidal march into the north against land controlled by demons. The problem from The Tiger’s Daughter of Shizuka being too powerful still exists in The Phoenix Empress, but Rivera smartly dilutes its negative impact on the story by focusing instead on the effect on Shizuka of her army’s lack of powers, super-healing, and near-immortality. So the payoff here is less having to do with the several battle scenes or duels (which honestly didn’t do much for me) and more to do with the emotional impact, a definite strength of the book. I also enjoyed the relationships in this section between Shizuka and her military general and between Shizuka and her cousin. Overall, I thought this tale was the best part of the novel, though I wish it hadn’t been so drawn out or taken so long to arrive.
The storyline dealing with Shefali’s illness was far less interesting to me for several reasons. One was it often felt repetitive. And another was the whole “internal struggle to not become a monster” is just something I feel I’ve seen a million times. Those who read less fantasy, or have read for fewer years, may respond more favorably. A secondary character, a lost cousin of Shizuka’s, introduced here also felt both a bit out of place (I felt that a modern American character had been transplanted into the tale) and a bit contrived/stock, though potential is there.
Beyond plot, character, and pacing, I had mixed feelings about the worldbuilding. On the one hand, I quite like the mythology that underlies much of the story even if it still feels a bit amorphous. The question of cycles of gods and demons and ascendancy may actually be the most interesting facet for me at this point. Though I found the Big Bad, which appears in an oddly flat infodump toward the end, more than a little anti-climactic and a bit too reminiscent — at least in this early stage — of It from A Wrinkle in Time (though it’s been decades since I read that book, so I could be way off on this). Outside of the mythology, though, the world-building feels a little unbalanced. There’s a great deal of micro-detail involving things like ink, calligraphy, honorifics, etc. But I can’t say that the world or culture really comes alive for me; I don’t feel at all steeped in a fantasy creation. Finally, as with the first book, the first-person relating a story gets more than a little wearying on me over this span of time. In my own idiosyncratic reader response, I find second-person hard to pull off beyond novella length, and first-person telling a story is hard to do past a few hundred pages (this clocks in at about 550). I also feel like Rivera tells me too much as a reader, either via that first-person storyteller or via the third-person we get from Shefali’s POV.
As noted in the intro, The Phoenix Empress is a definite improvement in many ways over its predecessor. I still don’t find either story as told or the characters as presented particularly compelling, while pacing, POV, structure, and the over-wrought romance elements have been obstacles more often than not. But Rivera can turn a sweet phrase, offering some lovely single lines or segments of description (I actually find her best writing to be when she turns away from character or plot). At this point, I wouldn’t recommend the THEIR BRIGHT ASCENDANCY series, having not liked The Tiger’s Daughter at all and having only a middling response to this one. But the improvement bodes well (save for what I’d call a misstep with the very last segment here, introducing the Traitor), and I’ll move on in hopes that it continues. I’ll let you know.