Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Fantasy Romance, Adult
Phoenix Unbound is a contradiction.
It is tender and savage.
Sweet yet bitter.
Beautiful and disgusting.
Heart-breaking and heart-mending.
And, put simply, I loved it.
“She and this slave fighter shared a common truth. He dealt with sword and ax, and she with fire.”
Once upon a time, a fire witch and a gladiator crossed paths. Gilene had accepted that as the only person capable of protecting her village, she would be degraded and burned year after year in order to satisfy the bloodlust of a corrupt empire. Azarion though, despite being a slave and a toy for the perversions of nobility, never gave up. For ten years he plotted his revenge and fed on his righteous fury, until the fire witch, the agacin, was the answer to his prayers. With her help, we would finally be able to reclaim his birthright and all that was stolen from him. Gilene didn't follow him willingly. She had a duty and a responsibility of her own, and only after extortions and threats she came to his aid. Through malevolent spirits and bounty hunters, through trials of the body and the mind, Gilene and Azarion fought, despaired, persisted. And formed a bond that years of sacrifice and torment could not tear apart.
Only fire could.
“This is why I hate the Empire most of all. Because it's twisted us into people we despise.”
Phoenix Unbound is a tragic, raw, brutal ode to human spirit, to resilience, to passion, to hope amidst nightmares. It's the story of a vile, rotten empire reeking of debauchery that beat, disgraced, abused the heroes but didn't manage to break their spirit, their ability to love and care and stand up and defy it, in their own way. There was something incredibly raw and matter-of-factly when Grace Draven narrated the horrors they both faced, their physical and mental scars. Throughout the story, my chest cracked in two. I kept holding my breath and refused to release it until I was certain that their pain stopped. But it never did. It simply co-existed with the fury, the love, the simple wonder of being alive. Under Sky Below, amongst wild horses and celebrations, in haunted barrows and fire trials, I found a gem. I kept it and clenched it until my hands bled. That's how this story made me feel.
Phoenix Unbound may be classed as fantasy romance, and the slow-burning, all-encompassing and soul-wrenching romance was indeed the main factor that made this novel so, so special, but it was not the only one. The tribes and their culture were so colourful and vibrant, the descriptions so authentic that transported you to Azarion and Gilene's world. Mind, though, that it is not a book for the faint-hearted. Rape, abuse, murder, they cast the blackest shadows that gave a bleak vibe to a story that finds the perfect balance between light and darkness. The portrayal of the Kraelian Empire is explicit, painful, a devastation to compete the wild beauty of the Savatar and their lands. But Grace Draven's adept fingers wove with clinical precision a tale that didn't shy away from the horrors, but at the same time basked in precious, warm rays of sunshine.
Azarion and Gilene were two incredibly drawn characters, rare in their self-awareness, the acknowledgment of their strengths and their flaws, driven by devotion, bound by a common goal and tethered by a affection that slowly transformed into a blazing inferno. There was a soothing calmness I associated with Gilene, even when she was restless, afraid or angry. On the other hand, Azarion is scored on my heart with his intensity, his patience, the chaos that awaited to be set free. Their scenes were particularly tender for a book so bloody and cruel.
Fiery romance, intense battles, terrifying magic, solid worldbuilding and a struggle for freedom and love are the main ingredients that mark Phoenix Unbound as an intoxicating, unique story that every reader will devour!
*ARC generously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
Note: The quotes used in this review are from an uncorrected text and subject to changes.