The Phoenix Unchained by Mercedes Lackey
I picked up The Phoenix Unchained, the first novel in The Enduring Flame trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory because I haven’t read Lackey before (and I wanted to) and this book was available for download in audio format (and I needed something for my commute). The Phoenix Unchained is a sequel to The Obsidian Trilogy which, unfortunately, is not available (yet) on audio, and which I haven’t read. However, I had heard that this new trilogy can stand alone, so I decided to give it a try.
The Phoenix Unchained begins as best friends Tiercel and Harrier are attending their city’s celebrations of legendary events that happened in The Obsidian Trilogy. It’s also Harrier’s birthday and, as a gift, his strange uncle gives him a book about magick which Tiercel asks to borrow. Tiercel soon finds that he has some magick abilities and catches the attention of a Wild Mage named Bisochim who is far away but wants to make sure that Tiercel does not disrupt his plans for allowing some dark magick back into the world so that he can save the life of Saravasse, the dragon he’s bonded to. Tiercel begins to have bad dreams, so he sets out with Harrier to find a Wild Mage who can help him.
What follows is a standard coming-of-age epic fantasy quest involving a boy who needs to learn how to use his magic before it kills him, his best friend who gets a fancy sword from a stranger, lots of slow travel with an unknown enemy pursuing, a few totally ridiculous place names (e.g. Githilnamanaranath and Karahelanderialigor — I did not make those up), several magical creatures (centaurs, unicorns, dragons, goblins, elves, fauns, etc), magic talismans, and a lot of sarcastic bickering and teasing such as teenage boys tend to engage in. Nothing I haven’t read before.
There are several borrowings from Tolkien and others (gosh, the elves look just like Legolas!) and some explanations and motivations that are vague or unbelievable: Why doesn’t Bisochim just go after Tiercel himself instead of sending spells or lackeys — sorry—who don’t get the job done? When and why did Bisochim and his dragon fall in love (we see this happen, but I wasn’t convinced)? How will letting in some darkness extend the life of Saravasse and why is Bisochim (who started off well) willing to let a lot of people die in order to do that? And if he has this potential for evil, why does Saravasse love him? Is Tiercel the only human with high mage powers, as the elves suggest, or is High Magick a skill that many people may be born with (as Tiercel says).
The Phoenix Unchained is not high literature, for sure. Don’t expect the beautiful prose of Catherynne Valente or the deep insights of Ursula Le Guin. In fact, Lackey’s descriptions don’t get any better than this:
Nothing in his life had prepared him for the heart-stopping beauty of a unicorn. She was as fragile, as delicate, as beautiful as a flower. She was grace personified.
As you see, the writing is serviceable (but certainly not elegant), and the heroes are likeable (but not particularly exciting). The plot is not as tight as I’d like, and it’s hardly original. Nonetheless, I found myself entertained and, since there was a major plot-twist/cliffhanger on the last page, I’m curious to see where the story is going. I may or may not go back and read The Obsidian Trilogy first.
Lackey and Mallory give enough background and history that I easily understood what was going on and the basics (I thought) of the history I needed to know. However, I found out later in the book, once the boys meet some very ancient characters, that some of the legends that had been passed down for 1000 years where amusingly inaccurate. I missed this humor because I wasn’t familiar with the original trilogy. I probably missed some other information that may have helped inform or entertain me, too. For example, what is a mage price? How does this magic work? Is a “balance” between light and dark necessary (as Bisochim maintains)? What is the “phoenix” mentioned in the title?
The Phoenix Unchained is recommended for anyone looking for a “lite” escapist fantasy epic (don’t expect anything more). The audiobook is a good format for this one — William Dufris’s reading is dynamic and well-nuanced, though occasionally it gets whiny as he depicts that oh-so-typical teenage angst.
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