Book Review : The Phoenix King

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 KingThe Phoenix King (The Ravence Trilogy, #1) by Aparna Verma
Published by Orbit on August 29, 2023
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 513
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In a kingdom where flames hold magic and the desert hides secrets, an ancient prophecy comes for an assassin, a princess, and a king. But none are ready to face destiny—and the choices they make could burn the world. “If we carry the burdens of our fathers, we’ll never know what it means to be free.” For Elena Aadya Ravence, fire is yearning. She longs to feel worthy of her Phoenix god, of her ancestors who transformed the barren dunes of Sayon into a thriving kingdom. But though she knows the ways and wiles of the desert better than she knows her own skin, the secrets of the Eternal Flame elude her. And without them, she’ll never be accepted as queen. For Leo Malhari Ravence, fire is control. He is not ready to give up his crown—there’s still too much work to be done to ensure his legacy remains untarnished, his family protected. But power comes with a price, and he’ll wage war with the heavens themselves to keep from paying it. For Yassen Knight, fire is redemption. He dreams of shedding his past as one of Sayon’s most deadly assassins, of laying to rest the ghosts of those he has lost. If joining the court of flame and serving the royal Ravence family—the very people he once swore to eliminate—will earn him that, he’ll do it no matter what they ask of him. But the Phoenix watches over all and the fire has a will of its own. It will come for all three, will come for Sayon itself….and they must either find a way to withstand the blaze or burn to ash. The first in an action–packed debut epic fantasy trilogy, The Phoenix King is "a captivating adventure from a gifted new voice” (Peter V. Brett).

The Phoenix King is a debut fantasy novel taking place in an Indian-inspired world. It has a really interesting premise centering on an ancient prophecy and is told from the alternating perspectives of a king, a princess, and an assassin. I was initially drawn to The Phoenix King due to its promises of an enemies-to-lovers romance, unique world-building, and morally gray characters. Unfortunately, though the ideas of The Phoenix King were superb, I found they were often contradictory and that the execution was lacking.


The world-building especially felt all over the place for me. The setting was both futuristic and antiquated, for lack of a better term. People use hoverpods, holopods, pulse guns, and visors, but then use scrolls for reading. The lore surrounding the Phoenix also felt contradictory to me. The Phoenix is supposed to be vengeful, so why do her followers say things like, “we the blessed few,” when it sounds like they’re anything but blessed to worship an angry goddess who seems anything but forgiving and loves a good fiery purge. I don’t really understand why her people worship the Phoenix with seemingly little to no benefits. Even Elena, the princess and future queen of the kingdom of Ravence seems to wonder this herself at times.


“‘I’ve seen how fire can tear apart its followers,’ he continued, ‘The Ravani know all this yet continue to worship the Phoenix. Others call it madness, but I think your people have tapped into an ancient force that no other nation understands….Ravence has survived because it knows what it means to burn. It knows loss, yet its people continue to believe.’”


Meanwhile, her father, King Leo, has given up on following religion entirely and stops at nothing to prevent the foretold Prophet from rising and destroying the nation…which obviously flies in the face of their entire religion. Normally when we see people worshiping this kind of deity, it’s because they’re getting something out of it and that wasn’t really demonstrated for me in The Phoenix King beyond the cons. The royal family’s fire power doesn’t help their citizens in any way, except supposedly as a deterrent to war somehow. But how is one king or queen that is able to wield the Phoenix’s fire, fight off entire armies? It doesn’t seem likely.


Similarly, I asked myself how people who live in a desert settled upon worshiping a fire god, and not a water one. Generally in mythology, people end up worshiping gods that offer something they want, such as a bountiful harvest, wisdom, fertility, etc.. But again, I never saw any direct benefits of worshiping the Phoenix, except that supposedly the royal family made a deal with her to found the nation of Ravence initially. And though Elena tells readers her father only focuses on his nation, and doesn’t do a good enough job taking care of his people, I never really see anyone suffering in the streets or crying out for the Phoenix’s aid. But anyways, as much of the novel centers around the Phoenix and the prophecy surrounding the rise of her mysterious prophet, who is foretold to burn the world, the actual benefits of worshiping the Phoenix seems like a very important question. I also would have really liked to learn more about the religion’s practices in general. There were priests and priestess, sayings that her followers uttered, and some ceremonies, but not a lot of actual substance beyond it.


For instance, at one point the novel proclaims, “To be forgiven, one must be burned.” But readers never see any public burnings or anything of the sort. Thieves don’t have brands burned into them or fingers burned off or anything. For a nation supposedly filled with fire fanatics, it certainly doesn’t seem to actually play that much of a role in the everyday life of its citizens (especially outside of the Royal Family).


Other factors of the world-building were also head scratchers. I found it a little odd that in a book taking place in an Indian inspired world, with characters wearing lehengas and saris, that characters had names like “Elena,” “Leo,” and “Samson.” Side characters seem to have completely different names, like “Ferma,” “Yassen,” “Maru,” “Jasmine,” “Giorna,” “Saayna,” “Erwin,” “Arish,” and “Aahnah.” Granted, some of these characters were from different origins, but there were never any common denominators in the choices of names or a whole lot of explanations surrounding them or their countries. I thought perhaps “Elena” and “Leo” were regnal names, but as they’re never called anything else (except for “Leo,” which is apparently a nickname), this does not appear to be the case. This just struck me as odd that all of these names were so disparate (or at least seeming so to me), and there were next to no commonality in names of people from a similar origin. Sure, there’s no rule stating someone has to pick a name from their culture or language, but this is typically something we see in both the real world and fantasy worlds. This may seem like a small thing, but this, along with my consternation over the lore, made my immersion into the world challenging.


In spite of my constant distraction over these questions, my struggles with the pacing, and that much of the earlier plot of the book doesn’t ever go anywhere, I kept reading The Phoenix King because I wanted to find out the identity of the Phoenix’s prophet. The novel does a great job twisting and turning things so that it could easily be several different characters. I would be certain I had the mystery figured out, only to get more information that had me second guessing and thinking it was actually someone else. I thought there was a lot of payoff to the reveal and though I’m interested in the motivations of this character in question, I feel like I can guess them, and don’t think I’m quite curious enough to read the next book in the series to find out if I’m correct.


But I think readers who love Own Voices will very much enjoy The Phoenix King. One of the main characters, assassin Yassen, is half-Ravani and half-Jantari, which is something that irrevocably renders him an outsider in both worlds. He spends a lot of time struggling to process his identity and watching others rudely do it for him. This portrayal is really poignant and I think it will resonate with a lot of readers.


Unfortunately, despite really liking the mystery of the prophet and Yassen’s struggles with belonging and identity, the rest of The Phoenix King felt bland. Though I liked the idea of the characters, I found them to be more archetypes than actual complex characters. Likewise, the enemies-to-lovers romance failed to capture my interest, as I never felt like the two characters in question were ever enemies or lovers. Like yes, it was clear at one point that he planned to kill her due to circumstances beyond his control, but to me, it was pretty obvious he’d make the right choices the whole time. I never feared for her safety around him, despite the fact that he was a notorious assassin who made his name killing royals. I am still positively perplexed as to why a former assassin, specializing in the murder of royals, would be given guard duty to the future queen and basically unlimited access to her. I could understand bringing him on as a special security expert, with his inside knowledge of the feared assassin organization, but as her personal guard? That required a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part.


I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the prose. It was mostly very direct and simplistic, but then had tons of expressions sprinkled in that felt forced and unnatural to me, like they desperately wanted to be quotable and poetic. Many of these sentiments also felt rather over the top and melodramatic to me as well, with not a whole lot of actual meaning behind them. For example:


“Ash begets ash. Heavens burn to reveal the truth. May the sinners be forgiven, and the pretenders see their doom….And thus justice shall bloom.”


Why in an expression about fire and ash is there a reference to blooming? This just doesn’t make sense to me and I quickly learned to stop trying to find the logic in these types of expressions. As a whole, The Phoenix King also suffers from a lot of telling over showing. And to me, it read mostly like a young adult fantasy, with characters making emotional and impulsive decisions, a focus on familial relations, not knowing how to handle relationships or responsibility, and coming into one’s own. It also has a lighter tone than most adult fantasy novels.


So if any of those former themes are your thing, than The Phoenix King will make for an enjoyable read. While The Phoenix King regrettably didn’t work for me and I probably won’t read any follow ups in the series, I do think the novel had a strong premise and is the perfect read for those looking for an Indian-inspired fantasy with unique gods, characters struggling with their senses of identity or a follow-up read to The Jasad Heir.


Book Review : The Phoenix King - Blogging with Dragons

Posted July 27, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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