The Phoenix Crown
Grade : C

I was excited to pick up The Phoenix Crown because I had read books by both authors before and thoroughly enjoyed them. I expected that combined, they would write a stunning, richly historical tale, but alas, that was not the case.

1906. This may very well be Gemma Garland’s last chance. A soprano who has been on stage for over a decade but is still working the chorus, she has all but given up on her dreams of stardom when she arrives in San Francisco. The good news is that she will be sharing the stage with Enrico Caruso, an honor even if she won’t be standing close to him. The bad news is that her arrival in the city by the bay is marked by several difficult events. For starters, she has no money to pay the porter to get her travel trunk to her friend’s apartment, and it’s an all-uphill walk. Second, her friend has disappeared from her rented rooms without a trace, leaving poor Gemma with nowhere to stay. She solves both problems handily - she negotiates with a young boy delivering laundry to use his cart to get the luggage uphill and then finagles the landlady into letting her stay in her absconded friend’s flat. That good luck stays with her: As she practices on stage, she is overheard by Henry Thornton, a wealthy businessman who wishes to become a renowned patron of the arts. He feels Gemma has the talent to be a headliner, and his patronage will get her there. Gemma is initially reluctant to meet him for dinner to discuss the possibilities - all too often, these offers come with strings attached, and she doesn’t play that game. She agrees after his insistence that their relationship will be purely business.

He is faithful to his word. Henry arranges for her to sing at a party he is throwing that introduces her to essential players in the city’s art scene. While there, she encounters Susie, a young Chinese waitress, and Alice Eastwood, a fellow boarder at Gemma’s lodgings and the curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences. Alice is there to see a rare breed of orchid Henry has recently acquired. She knows Susie, whose real name is Suling, because the young lady runs the laundry which serves her boarding house. Alice praises Suling’s exquisite embroidery to Henry, and he offers the girl an important, well-paying job. He is going to sponsor an event where Gemma sings Madame Butterfly with Caruso, and he needs Suling to repair the lavish, ancient gown he wants Gemma to wear. She is excited to accept. She needs money to escape an arranged marriage that will be taking place in just a few weeks. (Le sigh, this trope again.)

None of the women know that they are just days away from an earthquake that will destroy the city. Nor do they know that Henry Thornton has a terrible secret, one that will be revealed in the tumultuous days just before the catastrophe and will affect them all in ways they could never have suspected.

The prose here is very smooth, and the descriptions of art, locations such as Henry Stanhope’s home, and the music Gemma sings are lovely. I could almost hear Gemma’s rich voice belting from the pages. The story also does a terrific job of building tension - our heroines are in a dual race against time. They are trying to outwit the villain before said enemy can figure out what they are up to, and unbeknownst to them, they must do so before disaster strikes. I could feel the mounting pressure as the story progressed, and the characters' complete cluelessness about the coming catastrophe added a chilling effect to the mystery aspect of the tale.

Unfortunately, those are the only real positives. One of the things I look for in a historical novel is characters who feel as though they could conceivably belong in the era in which they are placed rather than in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. None of the characters in this novel meet that criteria. Their mannerisms, speech, beliefs, and behaviors are all more appropriate today than 120 years ago. Even more disconcerting is the ambiguity of their location. Not only could simple costume changes have made the characters feel at home in a contemporary novel, but the setting feels like anywhere USA. Anyone who has been to the San Francisco area knows that the landscape makes that impossible because it’s so different from most places in this country. To be fair, there is a vague mention of the uniqueness of Chinatown, but the authors do nothing to make that locale come to life.

The characters are also rote and generic - even Suling, who is aware of her heritage only as history, food, artifacts, and clothes. All of the women are career-oriented, independent, and shockingly open-minded for their era, and their personalities are so similar, they could easily have been swapped out for each other without a glitch. Their talents and education are unique, but their characteristics are all very similar, with the exception of someone we meet in the second half of the book. That particular person is a bit louder than the others, but in their thinking and attitudes, they are similar.

The villain is a cliché and a contradiction. Something they do at the end completely confused me because it goes against their established character up to that point.

Another confounding point is how the heroines all instantly trust each other. At one point, Gemma takes the word of Suling, whom she doesn’t know, over someone she knows fairly well because the plot needs her to trust Suling. It made little sense to me since being told someone we like is iffy might arouse our suspicions, but it would typically not inspire us to switch loyalties in an instant.

There are romances here, but they aren’t well drawn, and I honestly couldn’t figure out how the folks involved had fallen in love with each other. For added fun, the authors pontificate plentifully on how powerful men mistreated women and minorities in this era.

With all that I’ve listed wrong with The Phoenix Crown, you might wonder why the grade isn’t lower, but the simple truth is, the book isn’t bad, just generic and predictable. All the things the authors do to try to make the story unique -setting, the careers of the characters, including LGBTQ+ characters - actually delivered a fairly typical read for the current market. And there is nothing wrong with average if you are enjoying those stories - just don’t expect to find something new or exceptional here.

Reviewed by Maggie Boyd
Grade : C

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : March 16, 2024

Publication Date: 02/2024

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Maggie Boyd

I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.
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