Book Review : The Phoenix Keeper

I received this book for free from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Phoenix KeeperThe Phoenix Keeper by S.A. MacLean
Published by Orbit on August 13, 2024
Genres: Fantasy, LGBTQ
Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org
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four-stars

Set in a magical zoo teeming with mythical beasts from dragons and unicorns to kelpies and krakens, The Phoenix Keeper is a fierce joy of a cozy fantasy novel with a soul-restoring queer romance at its heart, for fans of The House in the Cerulean Sea and Legends and Lattes.
As head phoenix keeper at a world-renowned zoo for magical creatures, Aila's childhood dream of conserving critically endangered firebirds seems closer than ever. There's just one glaring caveat: her zoo's breeding program hasn't functioned for a decade. When a tragic phoenix heist sabotages the flagship initiative at a neighboring zoo, Aila must prove her derelict facilities are fit to take the reins.
But saving an entire species from extinction requires more than stellar animal handling skills. Carnivorous water horses, tempestuous thunderhawks, mischievous dragons... Aila has no problem wrangling beasts. But mustering the courage to ask for help from the hotshot griffin keeper at the zoo's most popular exhibit? Virtually impossible.
Especially when that hotshot griffin keeper happens to be her arch-rival from college: Luciana, an annoyingly brooding and insufferable know-it-all with the face of a goddess who's convinced that Aila's beloved phoenix would serve their cause better as an active performer rather than as a passive conservation exhibit. With the world watching and the threat of poachers looming, Aila's success is no longer merely a matter of keeping her job...
She is the keeper of the phoenix, and the future of a species – and her love life – now rests on her shoulders.

Ever since reading Travis Baldree’s books, Legends & Lattes and Bookshops & Bonedust, I’ve been enamored with cozy fantasy novels. So when I saw The Phoenix Keeper, a cozy fantasy novel centering around a zoo for magical creatures, I just knew I had to read it. The novel, with its relatable introverted protagonist, Aila, quirky magical creatures with personalities that jump off the page, and wonderful message, burns bright.

 

From the very first page, Aila was incredibly relatable to me—painfully introverted, awkward, passionate about her job, afflicted with untamable frizzy hair, and hyper fixated on the well being of her favorite magical creatures, the phoenix. As a former bullied horse girl, who wore horse sweatshirts and carried binders covered in horse pictures, I really understood her obsession with phoenixes and how it might be off-putting to those who didn’t share her enthusiasm for the same subject. I was wholeheartedly invested in Aila’s character growth. And I’m not just talking about her gaining confidence and coming out of her shell, but her journey to be okay with herself, even the parts of her that society doesn’t necessarily encourage.

 

I really liked this theme of The Phoenix Keeper and think this message is so important as we live in a world where enthusiasm or passion is often belittled as uncool or even distasteful. I liked that The Phoenix Keeper enforced that Aila didn’t need to change parts of herself to make herself more palatable to other people, but instead, that she’d attract that right group of people for her just by being herself. Unlike other parts of popular culture where the nerd girl suddenly shows herself as desirable by removing her glasses or taming her hair, Aila has a loyal friend who encourages her to find her voice and to stick up for herself and a slow-burn love interest that likes her just as she is, shy, frizzy-haired, stubborn, and caring. Both of these friends will give Aila the tools she needs to feel more confident, whether it’s practice with public speaking or learning to use mascara, but both still love her in her natural state.

 

‘Of course you’re afraid,’ Luciana said. ‘You’d be insane otherwise, all that responsibility. But that doesn’t matter now.’

Aila clutched her knees to her chest, trying to become small. To vanish and never show this vulnerability again. ‘Why?’

“Because the phoenix is here, Aila. He’s yours. No matter how afraid you are, no matter how many things go wrong, you have to act to make this work. And you will. You’ll mess up a few things along the way. But you’ll push through it because you have to, because those phoenixes need you. And you’ll have people there to help you every step of the way.'”


I also really enjoyed that debut author, S.A. Maclean allows Aila to be messy throughout the novel without making her seem incompetent or unsympathetic. So many times, main characters can make readers want to reach through the pages of the novel and shake some sense into the protagonists, but that’s not the case of The Phoenix Keeper. Even when Aila’s wrapped up in achieving her lifelong dream of restoring the breeding program of the phoenixes, she realizes when she’s been a bad friend and immediately does everything she can to fix it.

But for me, the true magic of The Phoenix Keeper is the descriptions of the magical creatures. From her descriptions of the animals, it’s readily apparent that Maclean is an animal lover herself. I found myself giggling at the depictions of the Archibird, Archie, who had a penchant for stealing shiny objects from zoo patrons. Not only were the magical creatures, well, magical, but they also felt rooted in science. The book made me fully believe in the possibility of such creatures and it’s clear Maclean has her own passion in environmental causes. For instance, I’d never once considered how phoenixes would procreate and the novel doesn’t disappoint with its original take on that. I also really enjoyed seeing fresh conceptions of familiar creatures, like kelpies, but also relished the introductions of brand new animals with interesting abilities and quirky personalities. I also loved that all of these magical creatures play such a big role in the climax of the story, it felt really fitting, and like the novel came full circle to the beginning of the story, back when we were just meeting all of the creatures on Aila’s morning rounds.

There were only two things that didn’t work so well for me in The Phoenix Keeper. The first was that a certain storyline was glaringly obvious to me the whole time. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all because that is certainly a sign that the novel was well-planned and that things weren’t being done just for shock value (the latter of which is a huge pet peeve of mine, but I digress). Plus, it’s a cozy novel, and how much shock do we really want in one of those, right? Well, unfortunately, since I knew what was coming from very early on in the novel, it gave me so much time to dread its inevitable arrival. Because I wholeheartedly cared about all of the characters and the magical creatures so much, I was legitimately not able to enjoy the book as much due to my own anxiety about these impending events. Therefore, I do wish that this part of the plot of The Phoenix Keeper had been a bit more subtle. Less anxious readers than myself will probably do a lot better with this.

The only other thing that fell a little flat for me was the main romance of the novel, which is unfortunate in a novel that markets itself as a romantasy. Near the very end of the novel, after ditching a male love interest, Aila finds herself catching feelings for Luciana, the confident griffin keeper, and new PR director for the phoenix program. While I absolutely thought their relationship was heartwarming and endearing, it was a bit easier for the characters to get together than I would have liked, even though it happened so late in the book. I know I say this time and time again in my reviews, but I’m a huge fan of the build-up towards a relationship, and I personally would have liked to get to sit with the unresolved romantic tension and the will-they-won’t-they for longer.

 

Since Aila doesn’t recognize her feelings until the novel is almost over, and spends so much wasted time on the male love interest, there’s not much time left in The Phoenix Keeper for anything but almost immediate romantic reciprocation between the two characters. I also couldn’t help but to question just how easy it was for View Spoiler » Though this wasn’t quite the epic romantic love story I was expecting from the blurb, with very little time dedicated to the actual romantic part of their relationship, I did really enjoy the development of their friendship and that their acceptance of each other’s personalities. We love supportive queens and there’s no shortage of them to be found in The Phoenix Keeper.

Regardless of my exact preferences regarding unfolding romances, there is simply so much to love in The Phoenix Keeper. I really enjoyed the unique world-building, magical creatures, and characters. I honestly would jump at the chance to return to this universe again. I will definitely be on the lookout for future works of the author’s as well, as this was such a promising debut work. I think this would be a perfect read for not only fans of cozy fantasies, but also those who love romantasy, and more specifically, for fans of The Memoirs of Lady Trent

 

four-stars
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Book Review

Posted June 25, 2024 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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8 responses to “Book Review : The Phoenix Keeper

    • Thank you! Even though I wish they had spent more time on the romance, it really was a delightfully fun read. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

  1. This wasn’t really on my radar, but now that I’ve read your review, I’m very curious, especially about the worldbuilding😁

    • It wasn’t on mine either, but I’m so glad I found it. It was the light-hearted, fun read I needed. If you read it, I’ll be excited to see what you think 😊

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