Desert Isle Keeper
Phoenix Unbound is the first book in Grace Draven’s Fallen Empire series. It’s a lovely romance set in a fascinating world, and I’m so glad I picked it up.
Gilene is a fire witch who is honor-bound to put the safety of her village above that of her own. Each year, every village in the empire is required to send a young woman to the capital city to be burned alive on a huge pyre for the entertainment of the masses and the glory of the gods. For the past five years, Gilene has journeyed to the capital and harnessed the fire to her will, making it possible for her to escape the blaze and return home only to make the journey again the following year. She’s not at all fond of this, but she firmly believes she must continue to do it in order to save her fellow villagers from the fire. She hopes another fire witch will eventually take her place, but until then, she has resigned herself to making numerous trips to the empire’s largest city.
Azarion is a gladiator who is enslaved and made to fight countless competitors in order to stay alive. He dreams of one day managing to escape and return home to the tribe he was destined to lead. He’d also like to get even with the cousin who sold him into slavery and stole his birthright. Up until recently, he hasn’t been able to come up with a successful plan to escape, but when Gilene appears for the fifth time, he begins to think his dream might finally be within his reach.
One night, Azarion corners Gilene and blackmails her into helping him escape. If she refuses, he tells her he will alert the emperor to her ability to survive the pyre. She is understandably reluctant to get caught up in this scheme, but she’s fully aware of the fact that he holds all the power, and so she grudgingly agrees to help him, on the understanding that he’ll allow her to return home once they’ve fled the capital. Unfortunately for Gilene, Azarion has no plans to let her go. At least, not right away. He fervently believes that her fire magic will help him reclaim his position as chief of his tribe, and he is unwilling to release her from their bargain until his leadership has been confirmed.
Since I’m not normally a fan of romances that center around abduction, I fully expected to have trouble with Azarion’s treatment of Gilene, but Ms. Draven does a fabulous job making him into a fully relatable hero. I definitely did not agree with his actions, but I was able to understand why he went to such extreme lengths to get what he wanted, and I ended up liking him quite a bit by the time I was halfway through the novel. He’s been through a lot of tough things, and it would be completely understandable for him to have become an extremely bitter man; but he is able to retain quite a bit of his humanity despite the horror he has lived through.
Gilene is exactly the kind of smart, spunky heroine I adore reading about, especially in fantasy novels. She struggles to figure out where she fits in the world, and how much she really owes her fellow villagers. Watching her become her own person was a true delight, and I wish more authors would write heroines who deal so competently with deep internal struggles.
There is an obvious power imbalance in the first part of the book, so I had some initial concerns about the romance between Azarion and Gilene. I wasn’t sure it would be believable, but Ms. Draven quickly allayed my fears. It’s clear from the start that these two are attracted to one another, but they do not act on these feelings right away. Azarion never uses his position of power to take advantage of Gilene in a sexual way, and when the two of them eventually do come together, it feels totally right. They view each other as true equals, and I appreciated that more than I can adequately express.
The world Gilene and Azarion inhabit is very rich and complex, but Ms. Draven was able to make me feel completely at home there, and to explain how the world works without resorting to massive info-dumps. Since this is the first book in the series, there is a lot of room for both the characters and the world to expand, but nothing about this story felt incomplete or stilted. It really was the perfect way for a series to start.
Phoenix Unbound is the first book I’ve read by Grace Draven, but it certainly won’t be my last. I look forward to future installments in this series, and I have purchased a couple of her backlist titles as well. I love fantasy romances, so I’m thrilled to have found another author who writes them with such skill.