Lou: I will always be thankful to Has for introducing me to an author who has become one of my all time favourite fantasy romance authors since Has first bookpushed Grace Draven’s A Master of Crows to me all those years ago. I was excited to see Ace picking up Grace Draven. Phoenix Unbound is the first book in the Fallen Empire series. It’s about a gladiator slave, Azarion, who blackmails a fire witch in helping him escape his hellish existence as Gladius Prime under the Krael empire. The fire witch, Gilene, has endured misery and torture over the years as a sacrifice to the Empire in a ceremony called The Rites of Spring, in which women and girls are burned en masse. Wielding the power of fire, Gilene is able to withstand the inferno, and through her magic of illusion she disguises herself each year so no other woman from her village is chosen as sacrifice. No one has seen past her illusion until now. Azarion sees Gilene as his only way out and he will use Gilene as his means of escape.
Has: I definitely agree with you that Grace Draven is one of the best fantasy romance authors writing today. Phoenix Unbound is a bit of a departure in tone, but not with Grace’s trademark style of writing with a vivid and rich thought-out world and a beautifully developed romance. This was her darkest book to date because what Gilene and Azarion experienced under the brutal dictates of the imperial Empire and their rulers.
Gilene had to undergo the yearly Rites of Spring every year as part of a sacrifice and tithe for the empire. Azarion, who is enslaved as a gladiator, was sold and betrayed by his cousin out of his birthright to lead his clan. He is a plaything of the ruthless and cruel Empress. He sees through Gilene’s illusions and realises that her abilities are key to not only escaping from the empire but to regain his place to lead his clan at The Sky Below.
Lou: Yes, I agree this was one of Grace’s darkest books to date. Both Gilene and Azarion suffer inhumanely at the hands of the Krael. Rape and torture feature in this book and it made for hard reading at times. Azarion does not treat Gilene kindly in the beginning of their relationship because he sees her as his only means of escape. She is his captive. Azarion had been forced to kill through brutal means for over a decade and he was raped. While he never hurt Gilene physically, he manipulated and blackmailed her. Gilene holds her own against Azarion and if she hadn’t spent all her fire magic at the Rites of Spring, I have no doubt she would have turned him into ashes on the spot. And Azarion knew this.
Part One of the book focuses on their escape and run from the empire. It also deals with Gilene healing from the pain inflicted upon her body because there is always a price to pay for her magic. It was such an enthralling read because both characters had suffered so much and you just wanted them to get their happy ending, and the romance was a slow burner because Gilene held such justified anger towards Azarion for kidnapping her. For Azarion, Gilene was his only way out of a torturous life from the empire, and the means to return home and reclaim what was taken from him.
Has: Oh, I definitely agree with you that Phoenix Unbound was such an enthralling read. I was drawn into the story from the first page. The pace and action never let up and I loved how it flowed from the tragic and pitiless beginnings at the hands of the empire to becoming reluctant allies and then slowly lovers. The worldbuilding was memorable, and well thought out. I really loved the Roman empire feel with roaming clansmen and travelling tradesmen.
I also felt that there were elements of horror. There are glimpses of horror in previous Grace Draven’s books, especially in her Wraith Kings, Master of Crows, and Gaslight Hades worlds. The scenes where Azarion and Gilene interact with these ghostly beings were chilling but also added to suspense and tension of the story as well as the worldbuilding which was so rich and vibrant.
Lou: I totally agree about the elements of horror, which were scarily amazing, especially in part one with a certain ghostly scene. The two are forced to work together and I loved how through time together they grow to care and love one another so deeply. I just loved how epic this story felt while reading. Not only was the worldbuilding and characters amazing, but I think this book went to even deeper depths that I haven’t read in a Draven book before.
Azarion returning back to his homeland and proving to his people that his cousin betrayed him, and proving that Gilene has been graced by Agna of her power so she can become part of the Fire Council, it all felt so tightly interconnected. The first half if the book is very pacey, and the second half has action but we see more of a slower pace. The worldbuilding as per usual by Draven was really, really good. An all ruling Council of female fire mages? Yes please. Can I have some more.
Has: I LOOOOOVED that the the female fire witches had so much power and influence with the different clans who consulted with each other over their future, which counteracted with the ruthlessness of the authoritarian type rule and power of the Empire. I especially liked that the women had positions of power and even the empress who is an evil and malevolent ruler was a great counterfigure of an enemy for Gilene and Azarion. One of my favourite scenes of the book is towards the end of the book where Azarion is able to gain vengeance but steps back and allows someone else to take a killing blow because she was more skilled and that really sums up how great a character he is. Azarion is a true hero, romantic and as a leader for his people and I loved how he was able to show Gilene and her abilities could have different options for a painful and tortured future she is trudging towards to.
Lou: Yesssss. You could feel Azarion’s rage and desire for revenge against The Empress and I loved that Gilene was like, yup, you go get it because you deserve it. The romance was very slow but it suited the story because there was so much to unpack between the two characters. Gilene had to come to terms with Azarion’s role in her captivity, and Azarion came to realise how ruthless and how unfeeling he came across to Gilene. It’s only when Azarion makes a certain promise to Gilene that she understands that he is a man of honour. Azarion falls so fast and hard for Gilene. She is the one understandly holding back because she knows that she can’t abandon her village and the women because despite the pain she suffers yearly as a sacrifice, she doesn’t want another to suffer what she is willing to do.
Has: I got so frustrated towards Gilene at the end because her village were callous to her plight and insensitive to her suffering. I wanted her to be happy with Azarion and I thought she was becoming too selfless to a group of people who would use her, which is no different to what the empire was doing to the rest of their lands. But I could understand why she was driven to protect them and in a lot of ways it was Gilene’s birthright just like Azarion’s to protect their people from the clutches of the empire and I liked how they mirrored each other’s roots.
One of the highlights of this book was the romance, even though it was slow burn. The character development between Azarion and Gilene evolved wonderfully and it really added another layer of depth to the story. And even though the romance was slow, the pace, the action and the worldbuilding didn’t detract attention at all. I also loved the supporting characters such as the healer, Halani who I suspect will be a major character in future books and her sweet mother Asil and the shade speaker who was a minor character who intriguely saw spirits of the dead added to the rich cast of characters.
Lou: Yes. The way her family treated her seemed so callous and unloving. There wasn’t as much depth given to that plot compared to Azarion’s return home and I would have liked to have seen a bit more of her family. But Gilene came to realise that she was a means to an end for her village. Ahh yes the supporting characters. I would love to see more of Halani who seemed to have some secrets of her own and the shade speaker at the end was very intriguing. I got the sense that Draven only gave us a small sneak peak into a world that is likely brimming full of magic. There was also a big battle scene that showcases Azarion’s leadership skills and how much he trusts his people despite seeing the absolute worst dredges of humanity during his captured years as a slave.
Phoenix Unbound is probably one of my favourite books of Draven’s to date, with political intrigue and a tale of burning revenge and a sweeping romance between two protagonists who have suffered terribly at the hands of other people. I was happy to see them get their much deserved HEA. Gilene found a true home with Azarion and I can’t wait to see what the next book in the series will be about and whether it will be a return to Azarion and Gilene, or other characters.
I give Phoenix Unbound an A.
Has: I also agree that this is probably one of Grace Draven’s best books to date! The world, plot and the romance was engaging and fast pace had me hooked from the first page. My only niggle is that the story ended too abruptly and while their story ends happily, I would have liked an epilogue to expand on their HEA. I don’t know if the second book will follow Gilene and Azarion because there were a couple of plot threads that were still open and in some ways this felt like the opening chapters of a huge saga.
Overall, Phoenix Unbound is firmly going to end up on my best books list this year, the romance, the amazing worldbuilding which was sweeping and evocative in tone and detail is a fantastic debut. I am eagerly waiting for the sequel because this is a real gem of a book!
I give Phoenix Unbound an A!