Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire, #1) — Grace Draven

Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven

TITLE: Phoenix Unbound
AUTHOR: Grace Draven
RELEASES: September 25th, 2018; Ace
GENRE: Fantasy
AGE RANGE: Adult

SYNOPSIS: 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.

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(credit to @meliescribbles on twitter!)

Every now and then, I get in these reading moods—more and more often lately—where I find myself craving a really good, swoon-worthy fantasy romance. I’d been in that mood for a few weeks when I decided to pick up Phoenix Unbound, and let me tell you, damn, does this book hit the spot.

For Gilene, spring was the season neither of rain nor of planting, but of suffering.

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Born a fire-witch, one of Gilene’s various magical abilities is that she is unharmed by fire—which means that, in her village of Beroe, she is forced to attend each year’s sacrificial slaughter in the Empire, where a woman from each village is burned alive for entertainment and holy blessings. We quickly learn that her sacrifice comes not just from selflessness, but from the village’s shackles on her family; if Gilene refuses, her loved ones will pay the cost. So, each year, she burns again and again, as she slowly becomes this jaded, cynical woman whose sole purpose is to keep struggling through life until the next spring’s sacrifices.

Despite (or as a result of) being a victim of so many varying abuses—whether it’s the village folk’s entrapment of her family, or the rape and burning she undergoes each spring, or the fact that she is forced to watch innocent women die at her side year after year—Gilene is such a strong, no-nonsense heroine, and I freaking love it. She’s tough as nails, but with a heart of pure gold, and she treasures her responsibility and family above all else.

To endure was to survive.

On the other hand, we have Azarion, whose “privileges” as the top gladiator in the Empire don’t negate the fact that he is a man who’s been sold into a vicious slavery trade. He faces daily abuses varying from physical to sexual and everything in between, and he bears countless scars, inside and out, but he is also a man with a mission to return to his people, and he refuses to let anything break him.

My heart broke for Azarion every step of the way. I know he doesn’t always do the right things, but he progresses so much and recognizes his own flaws, and even before he reaches that point, I couldn’t bring myself to fault him because what he’s gone through is just so brutal. Plus, I know I always talk about this, but I’m such a sucker for grouchy heroes with mushy, soft hearts under their tough exteriors, and Azarion totally fits the bill.

“This is why I hate the Empire most of all,” she said. “Because it’s twisted us into people we despise.”

If you’re looking for a slow-burning, methodical fantasy story, look no further, because the bulk of Phoenix Unbound is actually about Azarion and Gilene’s journey to find Azarion’s people, and the lengths he must go to in order to reclaim his birthright. There’s a wonderful amount of world-building, as well as side characters everywhere you turn that are so lovable and complex (including my favorite, Azarion’s queer sister, Tamura). There’s nonstop suspense, and I was surprised by a few incredibly creepy scenes including dark, ghostlike entities that were not here to play.

“I once thought I would always hate you, gladiator. That isn’t true now.”

If you’re like me, though, what drew you to this story was probably the promise of a fantastic enemies-to-lovers romance, and this does not disappoint in the least. The buildup between these two is agonizingly slow at times, but in the best way—I flew through every chapter, knowing the wait would be worth it, and I was so right.

Gilene and Azarion are two wonderful, wholesome, broken people, and watching them come together is the perfect star-crossed tragedy. I wanted so many more sweet scenes between them, and even if I wasn’t invested in the overall plot with the corrupted Empire, I know I would be coming back just for more of these two.

Fate was a vicious taskmaster of cruel, arbitrary humors, but every once in a while, it granted a boon in its own twisted way.

Phoenix Unbound was an absolutely delightful read that I could not get enough of. I binge read the entire book in one day, and immediately wanted more when it was over. I don’t know how I’m possibly going to wait for the sequel, but I am so happy that it’s listed as the beginning of a series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Content warnings for rape (including an explicit, on-page scene in chapter 2), physical abuse, violence, murder, imprisonment, infertility.

All quotes come from an advance copy and may not match the final release. Thank you so much to Berkley/Ace for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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Just a 25-year-old trying to juggle motherhood, grad school, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

12 thoughts on “Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire, #1) — Grace Draven

    1. Thank you! Haha same, I’m such a sucker for them, and this is one done exactly how I like it – they’re enemies, but they’re never super toxic or cruel to one another (in fact, even though Azarion has her in a pretty rough spot in the beginning, he’s really caring and protective, which I loved 😍).

      Liked by 1 person

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