The Phoenix Empress

by K Arsenault Rivera

Cover image

Series: Their Bright Ascendancy #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2018
ISBN: 0-7653-9256-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 544

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This is a direct sequel to The Tiger's Daughter and entirely pointless to read if you haven't read the previous book. This is not a series that one can start in the middle.

The Tiger's Daughter was one of my favorite novels of 2017, so I've been waiting eagerly for this book for nearly a year. I had no idea where Arsenault would go next with the story after the glorious triumph at the end of the last book, but I was hoping for more of the same. Unfortunately, The Phoenix Empress was something a bit different, at least for me; while some of the elements I loved are still there, Arsenault went in a somewhat different direction in the series than I was hoping.

The character names mentioned below are arguably spoilers of a sort below for the end of The Tiger's Daughter, although I don't think it's knowledge that would come as a surprise.

The Tiger's Daughter was mostly a letter written from Shefali to Shizuka, telling the story of their past and occasionally embedding in it letters in the other direction so that one gets a bit of Shizuka's voice. In The Phoenix Empress, Shizuka tells a story to Shefali, intermixed with more conventional narration (from Shefali's perspective) of ongoing events. It retains a bit of the same structure, but it's a story of a time when Shizuka was alone, so it misses the delightful and shameless drama of the pair's mutual love and devotion.

The story is also dark, depressing, full of dread at the knowledge that it's going to get even worse, and the source of Shizuka's drinking and (although the term isn't used in the story) PTSD. It also contains some horrific demons and a bit of maiming (which bothered me way more than I had expected it to).

The Tiger's Daughter had some of these elements as well, but it coupled them with a furiously optimistic tone and a sense that the characters would defeat any horror through overwhelming love and sheer audacity. With this book as contrast, I see that was a huge part of what I loved about it. It was aggressively, unapologetically melodramatic, and the result is glorious. The Phoenix Empress is mostly just melancholy, and is often painful to read.

The parts outside of Shizuka's story are a bit better, but sadly not that much. The parts of the previous book I liked least were the near-hopeless struggles against demonic infection, which is most of the companion narrative here. Arsenault also has the two main characters struggle to talk to each other and be honest with each other, and while they're mostly not idiots about it (and Arsenault writes it well), this is my least favorite trope in romance and reliably makes me grumbly. The story felt like a holding pattern: by the end of this book, we know a lot more about Shizuka, the arch-villain of the series, and the political changes that happened during the frame story of the previous book, but the overall plot has barely advanced from the end of The Tiger's Daughter.

This is rather negative, so I should note there are some parts of this I really liked. Shizuka and Shefali together continue to be a delight; they're so very different, yet fit together so well and support each other's weaknesses. They're also passionately in love with each other through good times and bad, in a way that makes me smile to read about. And several of the supporting characters are great, particularly Sakura, who is probably the highlight of this book. There wasn't much in Shizuka's story that I enjoyed, mostly due to the ever-present sense of creeping dread, but I still love Shefali's voice, her persistence and practicality, and the way she brings out the best in Shizuka.

The very end of The Phoenix Empress does promise something better to come, and succeeded in getting me excited for the next book in the series.

As much as I loved the melodrama of The Tiger's Daughter, Shizuka probably did need to grow up and stop being quite so eager to rush into anything. This was a hard and painful lesson for the reader to read through, at least for me, but I can see where Arsenault is going in the deepening and strengthening of both characters. I just want her to get there already, since the road along the way is painful and depressing, and I was reading this series for the glorious confidence and sense of invincibility.

There will certainly be a sequel to this, since it ends on a sort of cliffhanger, but the next book has not been announced at the time of this review.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-12-21

Last modified and spun 2019-02-05