The Phoenix King by Aparna Verma (Reviewed by Shazzie)

Book Review: The Phoenix King by Aparna Verma

The Phoenix King by Aparna Verma

Buy The Phoenix King here – U.S. | U.K.

Read an interview with the author along with the cover reveal here

OFFICIAL BOOK INFORMATION: 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.

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Aparna Verma was born in India and immigrated to the United States when she was two-years-old. She graduated from Stanford University with Honors in the Arts and a B.A. in English. The Phoenix King is her first novel.

When she is not writing, Aparna likes to ride horses, dance to Bollywood music, and find old cafes to read myths about forgotten worlds. You can connect with Aparna on Twitter and Instagram at @spirited_gal.

FORMAT/INFO: The Phoenix King is the first book in The Ravence Trilogy, and is published by Orbit books (29th August 2023 in the U.S. and 31st August 2023 in the U.K.) in paperback, ebook, and audio formats. It was previously self-published as THE BOY WITH FIRE.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Phoenix King by Aparna Verma is the first entry in an Indian-inspired adult epic fantasy series set in a desert kingdom. There’s a tyrant king, an assassin, and an heir about to be coronated, all at odds with each other in some way, but forced to work together.

Have I already told you all that I’m not an epic fantasy person? And that I was not one for books longer than 450 pages? Maybe a few million times. But none of that really mattered when I read this book because the pages flew by so quickly. I missed a squat workout so I could read this, you guys. If that doesn’t tell you how engrossed I was, I doubt the rest of this review will. But from here goes what I liked, and what I want to see done in the next books in the trilogy.

This has to be one of the most original and creative books I’ve read. It’s bloody, full of conflicted characters, and moves fast. The narration is in third person, and the story is told from the perspectives of Leo Malhari Ravence, the king of the Ravani kingdom whose reign is coming to an end, his daughter and heir Elena Aadya Ravence, and Yassen Knight, an infamous assassin willing to do anything to secure his freedom. It is primarily set in Ravani, the desert kingdom ruled by the Ravence dynasty, and the story of how the kingdom is founded is slowly revealed to the reader over the course of the book.

Leo was my favourite character to follow. He’s seen as a tyrant, Elena and he don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye when matters of governance is concerned, and he’s a complicated man with a tragic backstory. Elena and Leo carry some shared trauma, and it was fascinating to see them deal with it, because they don’t talk about it, and it was only exacerbated in the days leading to her coronation. It is a difficult parent-child relationship, they have some unspoken understandings and some degree of trust in each other, but there’s a believable amount of friction, specially with Leo’s misguided attempts to keep information from her because he believed it was in her best interests. There’s a lot of room for Elena to grow/change, and I eagerly wait to see what she does in the sequel. She has her own misgivings about her abilities, but her determination to do what’s best for her kingdom makes her very easy character to root for. She can be brash, violent, but also kind and considerate.

Yassen’s character, however, fell a bit flat for me. He’s gentle, silent, and compliant, but with a backstory that’s also quite compelling. But, a lot of what he’s involved in was off-page, and even at the risk of increasing the word count, I wish it was explored, along with the reasoning for some of his actions. There’s also a subtle enemies-to-lovers arc that I wished was built better, but I liked that the author unapologetically indulged in portraying a large part of it using iconic Bollywood moments. If you like a tense sword fight that’s just the right bit of playful and sensual, or her accessories caught in his garments, it’s all right here. I loved it.

The setting is a smooth blend of science fiction and fantasy, in a world where an group of people are trying to challenge and change the world order by toppling kingdoms ruled by dynasties and establishing a different form of governance, but the Ravani kingdom has an entire lineage of kings and queens that work with the eternal fire, whose authority is based on the myth and legend that surrounds it. Most of the locations featured seem quite cosmopolitan in nature, and the author relies on excerpts from various sources to dispense some information to the reader, and the rest is delivered through the narration, without any expositions. Now that I think about it, I wish the author was slightly more indulgent in her descriptions of the setting. The way certain scenes were set made it easy for me to feel immersed in the world, and for the desi (Indian subcontinental) reader like me, the bonus would be that it feels like a setting close to home, with all the South Asian elements woven in. How often will we see a powerful, well-trained protagonist ready to get into a fight when wearing a nath and a lehenga, or a God reminiscent of the often misunderstood Kali from our own myths, who can ravage and create, and risk destroying what she loves when she goes on a rampage?

CONCLUSION: The Phoenix King is a snappy sci-fantasy debut with themes of love, loss, resilience, sacrifice, and the importance of balance in power. There’s political scheming, morally grey characters, and a kingdom just ready to fall to shambles. A highly recommended read.

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