Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire's capital to be burned alive. But one woman, the witch Gilene, manages to stay alive year after year—until Azarion, the Empire's most famous gladiator, learns her secret and blackmails her to help him escape his life of slavery.
It’s a lovely romance set in a fascinating world, and I’m so glad I picked it up ... 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 ... 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 ... Phoenix Unbound is the first book I’ve read by Grace Draven, but it certainly won’t be my last.
There is a lot to be explored with the idea of ritual sacrifice of young women for the pleasure of the masses. But instead Draven plunges headlong into your typical romantic fantasy, with a compelling enemy-to-lover arc. This is comforting escapism at its best.
The detail when creating new worlds and cultures is what draws me to her [Draven's] stories time and time again, and Phoenix Unbound is no different. Each place Azarion and Gilene travel to is distinct and I wanted to know more and more about the world in which they live. But there’s definitely an unevenness to Azarion and Gilene’s journey ... I started skimming at times. I was also somewhat disappointed at how quickly and easily Azarion was able to take down the Empire ... This is the first in a series, but I don’t know if I’ll continue. The romance thread is pretty resolved by the end; Azarion and Gilene are happy and have professed their love. There are some political and magical plots unresolved, but I suppose I don’t care enough about them to where I felt any cliffhanger anxiety. As a fantasy romance, the book is more of the former and takes quite some time to get to the latter. And despite the great detail and care taken in creating this world and its characters, reading Phoenix Unbound was an exercise in patience.