Thursday, September 13, 2018

GIVEAWAY and Review for Phoenix Unbound, by Grace Draven

Title: Phoenix Unbound
Series: The Fallen Empire (1)
Author: Grace Draven
Publisher: Ace (Penguin)
Release Date: September 25,2018
Reviewing: eARC
Reason for reading: I'm on a fantasy romance binge right now, and I really enjoyed Draven's holiday novella last year, part of a limited edition collection entitled "Amid The Winter Snow."

The Short Answer

If you love a slow burn, enemies-to-lovers road romance, with mayyyybe a couple who will bring down an empire to be together, this is the fantasy romance you've been waiting for. Wanna read it for yourself? Penguin is offering a massive fantasy romance giveaway ! The only way to join is to click through. I've read every single book on this list and they are amazing! if you're not hooked on fantasy romance, you will be before you're done with that list. It's worth noting that the other five titles I would call more urban fantasy. Draven's contribution is a little different, being more in the tradition of swords-and-sorcery. Good luck! (and if you win, please come back and tell me!)

The Blurb
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. Unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will abandon everything to return to the Empire--and burn once more.

The Long Answer

To be perfectly honest, I tried an earlier Draven title and wasn't into it. Radiance involved an interspecies political marriage and I just can't. However, as I mentioned above, this author combined forces with a few of my favorites last December for a holiday anthology and I loved it a lot. Combined with some buzz on this title, I was keen to get my hands on it.

And I'm so glad I did! All the sweep and grandeur of your favorite epic fantasy, and none of the misogyny, although I'll add a trigger warning for rape. (It happens, but it is not a key part of the plot and is not described graphically.)

This hero surprised me a little. Tortured and abused for ten years in an arena strongly resembling gladiatorial Rome, he escapes with a mission, with ruthlessness, and yet also with empathy and tenderness, while Gilene is locked down under a tougher shell. Arguably, she has had an easier time, surviving an annual ritual that leaves her scarred, sick, and battered. But in between, she has a family, a home, a community, and work creating dyes (is it wrong that I want to hear more about this? I'm kind of a low-key textiles nerd). The difference is, she has no future that she can imagine, other than continuing this annual hell until she is too scarred and worn out to continue. She never expects to marry, or to bear children, and her role makes her othered in the community, with few friends. She has no hope.

What pulled me in was the gradual way that Azarion showed her a possible future. With a community that would respect and honor her gift, rather than one that would literally use her up with it. But she is the only one who can survive the annual tithe... so if she leaves her village behind for love, she is condemning her neighbors and family to death. Some reviewers have found the pacing slow, with the love between Azarion and Gilene taking a good part of the book to develop. To me, that gave some credibility to the enemies-to-lovers arc, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding so much that I didn't find pacing a problem.

There are a couple of really pivotal scenes that the author did an outstanding job on. One was a battle to the death involving feats of horsemanship, swords, and an eventual beheading. The other was a scene of intense magical power, and I won't say more to avoid spoilering, but my reaction to it was WOW!! Not every author can pull off those sorts of climaxes. I was never thrown out of the story and never lost my suspension of disbelief for a second.

Gilene and Azarion's happily ever after was hard-fought and well-earned. This book appears to be the first in a new series, but I have no insights on whether future books will feature the same couple or different ones. I have some hopes: I hope to read Halani's story, and perhaps Tamura's. Halani, a woman of uncanny healing skills, travels with a merchant's caravan reminiscent of the Romany, led by an uncle of dubious morality and including her mother, who has some sort of mental or neurological delays. Tamura is the hard-riding, hard-fighting sister of Azarion, in love with the headman's wife. None of the male secondary characters jumped out at me, but I am really, really crossing my fingers for Halani. There's also a super-creepy haunted village, a wounded but surviving super-villain, and some mysterious hints about dragon blood. There's DEFINITELY a setup for future books here, and I can't wait.

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