Publisher: Ace Books
Page Count: 400 pages
Release Date: September 25th, 2018
Series: THE FALLEN EMPIRE, Book 1
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars – Liked It!
Gilene is a woman with a secret. Every year, she goes to the empire’s capital as her village’s tribute, one woman among many destined to be burned at the stake as an offering to the gods. Except each time, Gilene uses her gifts of illusion and fire magic to avoid the fire and escape undetected, a ruse which spares the other women in her village a tortuous death. This year, however, Gilene is confronted by Azarion, a gladiator who can see through her illusion, and who threatens to expose her unless she helps him escape. Her obligation to him doesn’t end upon leaving the capital, however, as Gilene’s ability to call upon fire marks her as a handmaiden to his people’s goddess. And as a handmaiden, she has the power to support Azarion’s claim to the chieftainship, his birthright that was stolen from him a decade ago. If Gilene is to ever see her village again, she’ll have to traverse the country to Azarion’s homelands and help him win back the seat of power that was taken from him.
It should be noted that this is definitely a Romance fantasy, with all the explicit description that can entail (mostly confined to two scenes), so if that’s not your cup of tea, best move along. This book also contains brief discussion/descriptions of sexual assault, though nothing that felt overly gratuitous.
I have to admit, the synopsis above is one of the trickier ones I’ve had to write, as it is a plot that sounds inherently problematic as soon as you start saying it out loud. “Well there’s this gladiator, and he kidnaps this woman and blackmails her…” Thankfully, the author does a pretty good job of keeping the relationship as balanced as possible. Aside from the pesky moment of kidnapping Gilene to further his own goals, Azarion is a perfect gentleman. Gilene, in turn, manages for the most part to be an independent woman, one doesn’t hesitate to give Azarion a piece of her mind and who is absolutely committed to returning to her home because she believes it is her duty to shield the other women in the village from death. I occasionally rolled my eyes at the “I’m not important, I didn’t really do anything special” routine after Gilene helps save the day here and there. The author is also clear that Azarion’s attraction to Gilene is because of her steadfast loyalty and refusal to back down, and the eventual sex is fully consensual.
As for the rest of the plot, it’s pleasant and moves at a steady pace, though it can feel a little low stakes and sedate at times. The main thrust is Azarion’s quest to reclaim leadership of his clan, and as an afterthought, attacking the empire that held him captive and threatened to make war on his people. Gilene, meanwhile, is trying to learn more about her magic, and wrestling between her obligation to her village and the unexpected freedom she finds with Azarion’s clan. Not every book needs to be about the end of the world, and this kind of narrative can definitely be a relaxing change of pace.
I ended up rating this book 3.5/5 because it was a read I definitely enjoyed, but wasn’t blown away by. Some of that stems from the fact that romance is a genre I don’t avidly follow, but dabble in. This was a well-written book, and I can definitely see PHOENIX UNBOUND as appealing to those who love romance and fantasy. If that sounds like you, it could be worth your while to check this out!