ARC provided by Berkley Pub in exchange for an honest review
Title: Phoenix Unbound
Series: The Fallen Empire, #1
Author: Grace Draven
Genre: Fantasy, romance
Publication Date: September 25, 2018
My Rating: ★★★★★
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. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.
My friend Melanie at Meltotheany suggested I request this ARC due to all the rave reviews, and I am forever thankful she did! This book was such a treat and I cannot recommend it enough! Surely this will be one of my favorite fantasy books of the year.
Please keep in mind I haven’t read a lot of adult fantasy romance, so I don’t have much to compare this to. But what I read totally exceeded my expectations and makes me want to branch into this genre more. Usually I either gravitate toward YA fantasy (which usually has an abundance of romance) or adult high fantasy where the romance is very minor. So when I discovered this book is centered around two people who are trying to escape together (which totally screams “they’re going to be spending a lot of time together and fall in love”), I was totally living for it. Gilene and Azarion are my new faves, and I will be rooting for them in the sequels to come.
So, now I’d like to mention that due to the war-nature of this book, there are some scenes that may be triggering: rape (which is briefly at the very beginning), gladiator-themed fighting which involves animals (briefly), threats of rape, kidnapping, gore, death, and war violence.
Phoenix Unbound follows Gilene and Azarion, two people from different walks of life, who both happen to be imprisoned in the Empire for different reasons. Every year each village sends a woman to the Empire to be sacrificed by fire for entertainment purposes, and every year Gilene is “volunteered” to be the tithe. Unbeknownst to the Empire, she is a fire witch, and she has the ability to cast illusions long enough to withstand the flames and escape. For five years she endured this horrible tradition just so she can spare the other women from her village from dying a terrible death. Yet just because she can escape doesn’t mean she gets to leave without consequences. The fire still burns her skin to the extent where she’s covered in scars. She has become so broken and tired from having to sacrifice herself year after year that her love for her people in Beroe has started to wane.
Azarion was sold to the Empire as a slave, and over the course of a decade he became the Gladiator Prime. The things he had to endure were beyond gruesome, such as torture and rape from the Empress. But on the day of the Rites of Spring, he’s able to see through Gilene’s illusions, and he wants her to help him escape the Empire. We soon find out that Azarion wants to find his clan so he can reclaim his title from the person who stole it from him, and he believes Gilene’s connection to the fire goddess is his key.
At first I was skeptical about the budding romance in this book because Azarion was very cold and demanding toward Gilene in the beginning. He essentially needed her to be his captive before allowing her to go back home. And I know this dangerously treads a grey area of Stockholm Syndrome, but I personally did not feel it come off that way. I honestly feel like their relationship grew in an organic way where there was consent, respect, and understanding.
And if you’re an enemies-to-lovers fan, then I really think you may love this one. It is definitely a slow burn, but it is so well done. The world building, supernatural elements, and secondary characters were so perfect. And I loved how the themes of family obligation and finding your own happiness were the main focus in this book. Everything was wonderfully crafted. Seriously, this book was such a pleasure to read.
Oh, and the ending is sooo good. I cannot praise it enough. Thank you, Grace Draven, for not leaving us with a giant cliffhanger. It could stand alone, but there are still so many things that could be expanded. I am truly excited to find out what happens next.
Thank you, Melanie, for buddy reading with me! ❤