Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire's capital--her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village's tithe has been the same woman. Gilene's sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire's most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion--and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. Unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will abandon everything to return to the Empire--and burn once more.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Grace Draven
For Gilene, spring was the season neither of rain nor of planting, but of suffering.
She waited beside her mother, sister, and brothers as the caravan of shackled women plodded down Beroe’s market street toward the town square. The slavers of the Empire guided the line, shoving their cargo forward with harsh commands and the occasional warning crack of a whip.
She had already exchanged farewells with her mother and siblings. Each had embraced her, dry-eyed and grim-faced. This wasn’t their first parting, and for good or ill, it wouldn’t be their last.
Her eldest brother, Nylan, squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll be waiting for you in the usual spot,” he said in low tones meant for only her to hear. Gilene nodded, reaching up to pat his hand.
Her eyebrows arched when her mother sidled a little closer, her fingertips brushing Gilene’s sleeve in a hesitant caress. “Come back to us when it’s over.”
Gilene kept her reply behind her teeth. It was never over. Not for her. Despite her mother’s half-hearted gesture of comfort, she wouldn’t defend her daughter. Gilene would endure this every year until her age and her scars crippled her so badly, she could no longer wield her magic well enough to fool the Empire, and her burden became another’s. Her resentment served to blunt her fear. She gave a quick nod before turning her back on her family and striding toward the line of captives.
People hemmed either side of the dusty road. Their gazes, as she walked past them, were fearful, hopeful. Ashamed. A few villagers, however, wore expressions of warning instead of pity on their faces.
Yes, come back to us, they seemed to say. Or else.
Their stares shifted briefly past her shoulder to where her family huddled together to watch her leave.
Not all shackles were fashioned of iron.
Some of the villagers reached out to touch her, their fingers drifting across her sleeves or skirts like dead leaves. Gilene shrugged them off and made her way to the motley group at the end of the path.
One of the slavers snarled an impatient “Get in line!” and shoved her to the end of the queue. A few of the women stared at her empty-eyed; others wept and wiped their noses on the backs of dirty hands, their chains rattling as they raised their arms.
Another slaver approached her, a pair of manacles dangling from his fingers. He gave her a black-toothed smile as he snapped them around her wrists and tethered her to the woman next to her.
“Pretty jewelry,” he said and shook the shackles to show there was no breaking them.
The vision of the slaver enrobed in flames and shrieking in agony almost made her smile, but she kept her expression blank and dropped her shoulders in a defeated sag. She had learned years earlier that a broken captive didn’t incite the whip as often as a rebellious one did.
Beroe was the last stop on the slavers’ annual route to retrieve the living tithe the Krael Empire imposed on its subjects for the annual celebration known as the Rites of Spring. Gilene was the last tithe to join the others before they set off for the capital of Kraelag. She settled into the lurching rhythm of the chained line, dreading the four-day march ahead of her and its final destination even more.
Except for the chain rattle of shuffling feet and the bark of orders from a slaver, all stayed silent, fearful of the stinging flick of the whip.
Their journey was as miserable as it had been the previous year and the year before that: relentless marching under a spring sun that beat down on them with the promise of a brutal summer, nights spent huddled together for warmth as the remnants of winter rolled in with the twilight and whittled through clothing and skin like a knife.
The night before they reached the capital, Gilene curled into the back of her chain mate, a prostitute named Pell, and closed her eyes to the lullaby of chattering teeth and the soft sobs of her fellow prisoners. Her feet throbbed, but she dared not remove her sandals for fear of peeling away layers of skin from the many blisters.
She smelled the city’s reek long before she saw it. When the great walled capital of the Krael Empire came into view, some of the women cried out their relief at the sight. The slavers laughed, yanking on the chains hard enough to make some of their captives stumble and fall. Gilene helped a fallen Pell to her feet before the man fondest of bestowing the whip’s kiss strode toward them. Her fingers burned hot, earning a startled look from the prostitute before Gilene let go and stepped away as far as her chain length allowed. She forced down her fury before the tiny sparks bouncing between her knuckles grew to flames.
Patience, she silently admonished herself.
The slavers herded the women onto a wide, paved road that led to the colossal main gates. The space around them disappeared as they were hemmed in by a milling throng of people, carts, and animals. The noise was deafening, and the combined smells of sewage and unwashed bodies made her eyes water. She lifted her hands to cover her nose, the clink of her chains lost in the cacophony of shouting people, bleating livestock, and creaking wagon wheels as the masses heaved and rocked toward the gates.
Guards perched at their watches high in the two towers flanking either side of the gates, idly watching the crowd as it squeezed its way into the city’s confines—many who had come to attend the Rites of Spring. They casually dropped garbage and other offal on people as they passed beneath them, their raucous laughter carried on the fetid breeze.
A guard leaned out of a tower and shouted down to the crowd. “Any pretty flowers this year, Dolsh?”
The slaver closest to Gilene yelled back. “Does it matter? One roasted hen looks much like another.”
Laughter followed his reply, along with faint weeping. Gilene growled under her breath. A roasted cockerel looked like any other as well. She wanted to burn them all, every last one of them, but she was only one woman with limited power, a power she’d drain to the dregs just so she could survive this madness and keep her compatriots from suffering.
They were whipped, shoved, and cuffed through the narrow closes that branched off the main road like strands on a debris-littered spiderweb. At the web’s center, a man-made hill rose, its top crested with the emperor’s palace. Temples, manors, and bathhouses marched up its sides, and at its base, the arena crouched. A circular, roofless amphitheater whose sole purpose was to entertain Kraelag’s citizens with blood sport and brutality, it was known as the Pit, and to it the slavers herded their charges.
They reached the Pit’s outer walls and an entrance closed off by a barred gate manned by more guards. The sunlight faded as the procession descended several flights of slippery steps, through passages dimly lit by torchlight. The walls narrowed, forcing everyone into a single line. All snaked through the labyrinthine maze until they reached a low-ceilinged chamber in the city’s catacombs.
Gilene inhaled a stuttered breath as she crossed the threshold, knowing what awaited them in the chamber. Fresh from the Pit, covered in gore and reeking of sweat and butchery, the gladiators of the Empire lounged at the chamber’s opposite end and eyed the newcomers.
They didn’t approach, but the weight of their leers pressed down on her as she and the other women huddled together. She pretended not to see them. These were the men who had survived the day’s games, and their reward would be the sacrificial victims known as the Flowers of Spring. As one of those unfortunate blooms, Gilene would whore for her village tonight and burn for it tomorrow.
The girl on the other side of Pell shuddered and chanted a desperate prayer in a foreign tongue. Gilene leaned past her chain mate and grabbed a stretch of links attached to the praying girl’s manacle, giving it a quick jerk. The girl gasped, prayer forgotten as she stared wide-eyed first at Pell, then at Gilene.
“Shhh,” Gilene instructed her in a soft voice. “Be still. Be silent. Some lust for beauty, others for fear. Don’t show them yours.”
The other woman nodded, her lips moving in a now-soundless chant. Gilene gave her a brief smile of approval. She could offer little else, at least for tonight.
Pell leaned down to whisper in Gilene’s ear. “Her prayers are in vain. She’s too pretty, even under all the dirt. She should pray the one who chooses her will be gentle.” Her words were blunt rather than merciless.
Gilene sighed. “Gentleness has little meaning when one is unwilling.” She stared at Pell, wondering at the woman’s practical calm. Gilene had made this horrific trip four times before this one. She knew what to expect. The only unknown was how terrible each year would be compared to the one before it. “What will you pray for, Pell?”
The slattern’s calculating smile deepened the lines around her mouth and those fanning the corners of her kohl-lined eyes. “I haven’t prayed in years, girl. Wouldn’t know how to go about it even if I tried. I’ll be happy to get one of those fine stallions with the blood washed off him and enough skill between the blankets to make it worth spreading my legs for free.”
Gilene admired Pell’s bravado. The woman knew what awaited her with the dawn yet still held on to a cynical wit.
Pell made to say more but stopped when a short, muscled bull of a man strode into the chamber. Dressed in mismatched armor and carrying both whip and dagger, he was a formidable sight. Blue markings decorated his skin, sleeving his bare arms. The marks curled over his shoulders and crept up a thick neck to cap his bald head. Some of the women in line cowered away from him, and he grinned.
Hanimus, gladiatorial master trainer, still presided over this event each year with relish. Like Pell, Gilene didn’t pray, but if she did, she’d beseech the gods for Hanimus’s death. He represented all that was rotten about the Empire.
He walked the long row of women, pausing at times to lift the chin of one with his whip handle or fondle the breast of another. His fighters called out encouragement and vulgar suggestions for what they wanted to do to their chosen prizes.
“They sent us a good crop this year, lads,” he proclaimed. “Too bad you only have them for a night.” Groans and ribald laughter filled the room, drowning out the softer weeping.
“We’ll all grow old before we can choose,” one impatient fighter protested.
The trainer’s eyes narrowed, and he spun to glare at the men. They snapped to attention. “You’ll wait your turn,” he warned. “Azarion is still fighting. If he lives, he’ll have first choice as Prime.”
As if on cue, the boisterous cheers of the arena’s crowd vibrated against the stone walls of the catacombs, sending dust raining down on everyone’s heads. The death bell pealed a sonorous song—tribute to the victor, a dirge to the slain.
“Lot of good it’ll do him,” someone muttered. “Herself will summon him like always. She rides that cock every chance she gets.” A chorus of ayes answered him.
Hanimus shrugged. “He still has first pick.”
Gilene bowed her head to hide her anger. Most of the women in chains had been separated from husbands and children, parents and siblings. Brought to Kraelag for the sole purpose of dying, they shouldn’t have to suffer this final degradation.
A part of her recognized they were alike in some ways—the condemned women of the villages and the enslaved gladiators of the arena. They had once been beloved sons and brothers, maybe husbands and fathers. Now they were all fodder for indifferent gods and the entertainment of the Empire, their deaths more valuable than their lives to those who ruled. Still, she couldn’t find it within her to pity these men who would subjugate them.
An expectant silence descended on the group as the crowd’s triumphant chant swelled to a thunderous bellow.
“Azarion! Azarion! Azarion!”
Hanimus smacked his whip handle against his thigh and grinned. “Ha! I knew he’d take the fight. The Margrave of Southland owes me a goodly sum now.”
The march of feet soon sounded on the steps leading down to the catacombs—the last victorious gladiator and his entourage of guards. Gilene watched the doorway from the corner of her eye, her stomach knotting itself in dread of seeing the man who would come through the entrance.
Like the other gladiators already here, he’d be dressed in blood-spattered armor. Unlike the others, he’d suck the air out of the room with his presence. She remembered Azarion from her previous annual treks to the capital. Worse, Azarion seemed to remember her.
Boot heels scraped across the dirt, and the Gladius Prime made his appearance. He bent to avoid hitting the lintel and entered the chamber. Stifled gasps from the women and bows from the men greeted him—this slave who commanded the deference reserved for kings.
He’d changed little since she’d seen him the previous year. A tall, solidly built man with wide shoulders and long, muscled arms, he exuded a presence that diminished the men around him. He was disarmed now, but she had no doubt he could kill as easily with his bare hands as he did with the weapons he carried into the arena.
His dark hair was shorter than she remembered, resting on his shoulders in sweat-dampened tendrils. She refused to look at him directly, choosing instead to watch him from the corner of her eye. She’d met his gaze before and regretted it.
He was handsome, with the high cheekbones and light eyes characteristic of the nomadic clans who roamed the Stara Dragana. The cold expression he leveled on the room’s occupants turned his green eyes flinty. Gilene hunched her shoulders and tucked herself as far back from the line as her chains allowed.
One of the gladiators broke the expectant silence. “Was it a good fight, Azarion?”
Azarion glanced at him before returning his attention to the women. “Aye. Damiano fought well and died honorably.”
Gilene shuddered. She’d forgotten his voice. Low and gruff, it carried to all corners, challenging, as if he dared anyone to make light of his victory or the death of the man he’d fought.
Hanimus tapped him on the arm. “We’ve been waiting for you. Best make your choice quick before Herself calls for you.”
Azarion slowly moved down the line, and Gilene’s heart joined her stomach in trying to squeeze itself into a corner of her rib cage. He paused before each woman, staring at her with a prolonged gaze. Beside Gilene, chains clanked as Pell patted down the snarled mess of her hair and adopted a pose to show off her attributes.
Gilene clenched her hands in her skirts, trying not to panic. Surely, he couldn’t recognize her. She’d returned to the capital time and again with a different face. Her skills with illusion were as refined as they were with fire. The slavers never knew they brought the same woman from Beroe to Kraelag year after year. No slave fighter from the Stara Dragana should have the talent to see past her veil of enchantment.
Fear coated her tongue at a memory from the previous year. Azarion’s green gaze had locked on her and narrowed. Neither lustful nor leering, he’d stared at her for several moments as if seeing not a freckled redhead with wild, frizzy hair, but her true self: a plain, dark-eyed brunette.
“Do not know me,” she muttered under her breath. It wasn’t a prayer. She’d ceased believing in gods long ago. Still, she chanted the plea silently. Her heart slammed against her breastbone when he halted in front of her.
Do not know me.
This year she was round-faced and cross-eyed, with lank brown hair and sunburned skin. She’d bound her breasts and wore layers of sweltering wool to mask her shape.
Do not know me.
The prayer that was not a prayer pounded in her head, and she swallowed a whimper when he lifted her chin with one finger. Her gaze slid past his face to a dent on the pauldron protecting his shoulder.
“Look at me.” His deep voice, so quiet, carried the resonant command of a general.
She refused to take her eyes off the dent.
“Look at me,” he repeated in the same tone. His fingers curled around her jaw and pressed. She dragged her gaze to his, the drumming of her heartbeat making her chest hurt. He leaned closer, gripping her chin even harder to keep her still, eyes blazing in triumph.
“I know you,” he whispered.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Every year each of the villages in the Empire must chose a young girl for tribute. The girls are brought to the Empire’s capital where they are taken by the gladiators then burned alive the next morning. For the last several years Gilene is her village’s tribute. She is a fire witch and can change her appearance. The villagers threaten her family to keep her in this charade. Azarion is the most famous gladiator the Empire has. He has survived in the ring and in the empress’s bedroom and has suffered both physically and mentally. Since he is the top gladiator he gets first pick of the girls and has come to realize that the one girl is the same person he has seen for the last couple years. He comes up with a plan to make her help him reclaim his birthright in his clan. This is a dark story but amazing. Gilene is a strong woman and has to be with what she puts herself through. She is willing to play this charade just to keep her family safe. When Azarion figures out who she is he doesn’t really give her the chance to argue, he essentially makes her help him. Beside that portion of the story, what was really amazing was the romance that developed between Gilene and Azarion. It was sweet, caring, and perfect for what the two of them has gone through. This is an amazing romantic fantasy that will draw you in to this brutal world, fill you with hope, and leave you wanting more. I can’t wait to read more about this world. I received a complimentary copy of this book. I voluntarily chose to read and post an honest review of this book.
Romantic and unique. Loved it!
The first novel of the Fallen Empire series is fascinating! Grace Draven's storytelling is intoxicating and compelling. The characters have depth that pulls you in with the need to see what motivates them or pushes them to make grave sacrifices. Phoenix Unbound is one of those stories that slowly builds up to something completely epic and memorable. Gilene turned out to be such a beautiful character. She was a bit standoffish and aggressive in the beginning, but once removed from the oppressive duties of her hometown she flourished. Azarion escaped from the clutches of the Empire with Gilene's help, but it takes all of his own strength to reclaim his leadership role in his clan. I actually like that their relationship isn't rainbows and sunshine from the start. It makes seeing its development from hostile to friendly more substantial and believable. The threat of the empire hangs over their shoulders throughout the novel, but its infamous leaders don't get much page time. It was easy to forget the threat unless you paid attention to the state of the common people Gilene and Azarion came across between their escape and journey to Azarion's birth home. The ruler's greed and injustices keep the characters pushing towards their goals and make readers wonder how they're going to stand up to their oppressors. I'm so eager to see the rest of the world created in Phoenix Unbound unfold in the series. It's been a while since I've read a fantasy novel like this and I want to soak it up! This is the novel to read if you're a fan of Sandy Williams or Ilona Andrews! *ARC provided via First to Read*
Very well written fantasy. Loved the Steppe tribal life. A great blend of romance set in a war torn world.
Phoenix Unbound was a solid fantasy. It had some darker elements to it with what these characters go through during their time in the capitol. However, you get to watch them both heal and gain strength from each other. I'm really glad I took a chance on this book. I not only look forward to reading the next book in the series, but I plan to read the author's other work as well. Gilene is a noble character. She is ostracized by those in her village because of her fire witch status. She's always been viewed differently, and not always in a good way. However, if she doesn't sacrifice herself each year, then someone else from her village would be taken, and unlike her, they would not survive the fire. Oh, and there's the little tidbit about the villagers threatening Gilene's family if she doesn't follow through or return from the capitol to take her spot again the following year. So, to say that Gilene is a little jaded and bitter would be an understatement. Azarion has been a gladiator for a decade. He's earned the status of Prime among the ranks and is revered by many. However, his high status comes with a price. He's gained the attention of the Empress and in doing such has found himself with another title as one of her "bulls". Let's just let that sink in a minute. Not only does he have to fight over and over to the death for the others entertainment, but when it's all said and done, he gets summoned to this vile woman's chamber to be her play thing. Which includes beatings, rape, and her own private gladiator battle to the death. So, after this poor guy has been fighting for his life in the arena, he gets zero rest before he has to do it all over again for the Empress's amusement. The whole this was sickening and you really felt for Azarion. Does he blackmail Gilene into helping him escape? Yes. Does he kidnap her in order to get his status back with his people? Yes. However, he's nothing but kind to her and even pledges to bring her back to her village once he's secured his position again. Since this is the first book in the series, I honestly thought this would be some drawn out introductory to the world. Maybe at the end of this they escape, or maybe they even make it to his people. However, there was none of that since this is a stand-alone. There are no cliffhangers or anything that leaves you hanging. Which was something I greatly appreciated. I'm not a fan of reading a series story line. I tend to get bored of the same old long journey after a while. So, I was pleasantly surprised when the author wrapped it all up in one book. I'm actually not sure if the next book will still be about Gilene and Azarion or if it will be about other characters, but I plan to tune in and find out.
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for a honest review. Grace Draven is synonymous with Fantasy Romance as Ilona Andrews is with Urban Fantasy. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Draven’s work over the years but for some reason have never picked up her books. But when Ace offered Phoenix Unbound up for review I jumped at the chance to start her new series. And I’m so glad I did. Phoenix Unbound has all the hallmark of a great Fantasy Romance with a rich and vivid world and multifaceted and well-rounded characters that you can’t help but fall in love with. Full disclose, Phoenix Unbound has the usual tropes that we’ve seen time and time again in the Fantasy Romance genre. The first is, girl gets kidnapped and falls for her captor and peoples’ favorite enemies turned lovers. I’m not particularly a fan of the later because let’s be honest we all know of Stockholm Syndrome. It’s just icky in my opinion. But Draven somehow made it work and made it readable. Even throughout the novel and toward the end of the novel, Gilene knew exactly what Azarion did was wrong and she reminded him repeatedly of it and did everything to ensure she was returned to Beroe in time for the next Spring Rites. It also helped that Azarion never took advantage of Gilene and promised to take her home safely after she helped him win his clan back. But the book is much more than those trope. It’s was also about justice and vengeance. Fighting against wrong-doers and the oppressors. And Gilene and Azarion would do anything to free themselves and their people from the Empire’s control. I liked that they were flawed character, it made them seemed more real. Phoenix Unbound had one of the best endings I’ve read and I can truly say it was in epic Fantasy fashion. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly I don’t read too many Fantasy Romance, but this was pretty exceptional. I can’t wait to read more of Draven’s work and see what she has in store for the next Fallen Empire novel. I highly recommend Phoenix Unbound. If you’re looking for a fresh take on witches/elementals then definitely checkout this new series starter!
Lovely and enjoyable story. Grace Draven's written words are always a must read.
Another great story by Grace Draven! This one starts in darkness but there is triumph after the suffering.
Another incredible story by Grace Draven! She weaves her stories and goes places you do t expect. Love this story of love and suffering
I literally could not put this down; excellent writing, strong characterization, great plot! This is the first novel I've read by Draven; I'm going to find more now!
An exciting new series!
Phoenix Unbound contains a complex, captivating, dark and compelling plot that I couldn't help but love every second of it! That being said, its a snowball rolling down the hill read. It starts out with a young woman being sent by her tribe as a sacrifice to the evil ruler's gods and ends up being SO. MUCH. MORE. What can I say but I'm completely hooked. Draven writes a high fantasy packed with all my favorites, magic, mayhem, romance and writing that rivets the read to the pages. I simply can't wait for more in the Fallen Empire world. Quite frankly after finishing Phoenix Unbound, I know I will be heading off to read more by Grace Draven! I received this ARC copy of Phoenix Unbound from Berkley Publishing Group - Ace. This is my honest and voluntary review.
I thought that this book was excellent. I had not read any of Grace Draven's work before picking this book up but I had heard a lot of really good things. Since the premise of this book appealed to me, I decided to give it a try which ended up being a very good decision. I made the mistake of starting this book just before I planned to go to sleep. I had planned to read just one chapter but the first chapter of this book blew me away and I didn't want to stop after just one chapter. It has been a long time since I picked up a book with such a strong opening. I had a great time reading this amazing story. Gilene and Azarion have both been through a lot. Gilene has been sent by her village to the capital as a sacrifice to be burned alive. She has a few special powers and has survived this event for the past five years but not without a terrible cost. Azarion is the best gladiator in the capital. He was sold into slavery ten years prior and it is really a miracle that he has been able to survive not only the fighting but the empress's whims. I liked both of these characters. Gilene accepted her role and did her best to continue to protect her village. Azarion has not given up hope of returning to his homeland and he sees that Gilene may be the key to making it happen. I completely understood his desperation and his willingness to force Gilene to aide him with his plan. This was a really exciting story that explored several unique and interesting settings. The horror of the Empire was incredibly vivid and emotional. It pained me to think of the needless sacrifice so many women were forced to make for the amusement of others. The book takes the reader on a journey of the lands surrounding the capital where each was a little different but still touched by the empire's power. Azarion's homeland was such a nice contrast to the capital and I really enjoyed learning about his village. There were plenty of action scenes to keep the pages turning. Azarion and Gilene find themselves in trouble at various points of the story and there were times that I found myself holding my breath because I was worried about how things would turn out. It was fun to watch them learn to start trusting and counting on each other. I thought that the romance that built between them felt very authentic. I really enjoyed the extra abilities of both Azarion and Gilene and thought it added an interesting element to the story. I would recommend this book to others. I thought that this book blended fantasy and romance in a spectacular manner that had me wanting things to work out for the characters more than anything. I can't wait to read more books in this series! I received a digital review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group - Ace via Net Galley and First to Read.
I enjoy a good fantasy, and if it also has an element of romance, I’m a happy reader. But Phoenix Unbound goes so far beyond that, I was left speechless for several minutes with the realization I’d just finished an epic fantasy, every bit as great as anything by George R.R. Martin or Ursula K. LeGuin. Yes, the novel is a true fantasy masterpiece. Want to talk about pathos? Both Azarion and Gilene have scarred backgrounds including past abuse. The subject was handled deftly with compassion and extreme care as only an author of Ms. Draven’s caliber can. But be warned and grab your tissues, because Phoenix Unbound reaches in deep and pulls out every emotion you have. I’m not a typical book or movie crier, but I felt tears rolling down my cheeks more than once as I read this amazing story. The secondary characters also shine, especially Halani. I loved how she embodied the essence of a historic nomadic tribeswoman, and their oral storytelling tradition. The world building is pure delight. As I read, I could see myself there, wandering the streets of the Empire’s capital or traveling the hard packed dusty roads. The touches of magic are seamlessly woven into the book and add a wonderful, ethereal air. I want to read more books populated in this incredible world. I think once you read Phoenix Unbound, you’ll agree with me. An_Eclectic_Reader received an ARC for review.
Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven is the 1st book in her new Fallen Empire series. This is my first book by Draven, and I really enjoyed this well written fantasy themed ‘enemies to lovers’ romance. Phoenix Unbound is a slow built romance, but that is strictly in the background as the story takes center stage; filled with violence, betrayal, battles, and sacrifices. Gilene, our heroine, lives in a small village which is part of the Empire. Every year, all the villages have to send a woman to the capitol as a sacrifice to the Gods, as part of the Rites of Spring. For 5 years Gilene, who is a secret fire witch, saves the women in her village, by representing one of the women each year who are burned alive. She has the ability to not burn from the fire, and also is able to create an illusion changing her looks. She survives each year, suffering scars along the way. Her village does not treat Gilene with appreciation, expecting her to do her duty, despite the danger and terrible toll it takes on her. Azarion, our hero, is a gladiator, who was sold to the empire by his cousin, and is also the best gladiator. But he must endure the cruelty as a slave, especially to the Empress who uses and abuses him sexually. He desperately wants to escape and return home to his family, and reclaim the crown of his clan, which was stolen by his evil cousin. The last few years, Azarion has been able to see through the disguise of this young lady who is able to return, and comes up with a plan to escape. Azarion will force Gilene to help him escape, using her ability to use illusions to change how she looks. He threatens to reveal her town’s trickery to the Empire, if she doesn’t help, but he does promise to let her go and keep her secret if she works with him. When Gilene once again walks away from the burning fire, and helped Azarion escape, she runs to return home, only to have Azarion kidnap her. He needs her to help him return home, and win back his rightful title. What follows is an exciting, dark & action packed adventure filled with danger and violent situations. When Azarion finally gets home safe, there is still the danger of his cousin, and proving to the fire witches that Gilene is indeed one of them. In the beginning, Gilene hates and does not trust Azarion, but over time, especially after the dangerous and harrowing adventure travelling to his home, and when she meets and gets to know his family, her feelings begin to change. Azarion, despite his growing feelings for Gilene, plans to honor his word to help her return home. Will Gilene go home to a town that used her, or will she stay with those she has come to care for, and Azarion? I thought that Gilene was a great heroine, strong, brave, loyal and her powers were great; something she will learn to increase in time. When the war escalates, it was amazing how awesome she was. Azarion turned into a wonderful hero, who suffered horrible cruelty as a captive of the Empire. When he began to fall in love with Gilene, it was wonderful to see how sweet he was to her; this was a beautiful enemies to lovers story. Everything does change for the better when Azarion rises up to his true destiny, and must find a way to save his people and fight the Empire. Phoenix Unbound was an excellently written fantasy that kept your attention throughout, with a bit of everything from wonderful heroes, romance, danger, cruelty, great characters and an exciting adventure all the way through.
Grace Draven is one of my favorite fantasy authors and she hits this one out of the park! Gilene is a fire witch who also has the ability to form illusions. Every year, women are led to the Krael's capital as sacrifices to be burnt at the stake after serving a night as a prostitute. Because Gilene can put an illusion over herself, she selflessly goes every year to the capital so as that a innocent woman from her town doesn’t have to be sacrificed. The men, are gladiators that fight to the death. Azarion is a gladiator that has been serving the empress for 10 years now. He sees through Gilene’s illusion and see her as a means to escape and as a means to reclaim his birthright. I love how selfless Gilene is, but also how much she fights to survive. I love Azarion. He is also strong and resourceful. While he originally plans to use Gilene because she is a fire witch, he does what he can to protect her and promises to get her back home once he accomplishes his goals. While the two start off not exactly liking each other, I enjoyed watching their relationship evolve into something more. I am always a sucker for those enemies- to- lovers stories and the author does a great job with the slow burn romance. The hero and heroine in Phoenix Unbound are very strong, likable, and well developed. The book is told from a dual POV which is something that I always prefer because I like to know the thoughts and feeling from each of the main characters. There is a lot of action and of course romance, thus keeping the book moving at a good pace. It is amazing how the author is able to develop a world in such detail that you feel like you are actually there. It is obvious that while she builds a fantasy world, she clearly researches historical elements to add to her story. Phoenix Unbound is perhaps one of my favorite of Grace Draven's (although I say that about almost all of her books). It is one of the rare books that I will re-read because its as that enjoyable. I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley and I voluntarily leave this review.
This first novel in the Fallen Empire trilogy sets up the story and world of Gilene, Azarion, and their respective peoples who live bound by some truly malevolent rulers. Each year the exceedingly evil Krael Empire demands young women as sacrifices from outlying villages sent to the capital to die in a horrible manner. All this happens for the entertainment of the rulers and citizens as well as ostensibly appeasing the gods. After gladiators fight to the death, the next level of atrocity comes when the women are burned as tributes to the appreciative crowd’s roar. Gilene has selflessly gone to fill that role for the last five years. Using hidden powers as a fire witch that make her immune to the burning, Gilene saves other women from her village the horrible fate of brutality by the guards and gladiators, and then immolation. Azarion, the Prime Gladiator, has the magical ability to see through Gilene’s illusions. With Gilene’s reluctant help, Azarion foments an escape from the brutal fighting and the cruel, capricious whims of the Empress he has survived for the last ten years. Azarion forces Gilene to follow him back home to the Savatar people where he must face an enemy to reclaim a stolen birthright. Gilene is a less than willing accomplice spending much of their perilous trek back to Azarion’s homeland resisting her growing attraction to this man whom she feels should be despised. They have a difficult and dangerous road to follow with Empire soldiers after them to capture the Empresses’ favorite fighter to use and torture. Azarion’s attraction to Gilene is much more than her usefulness in helping him and his people. He sees not only her physical beauty despite scars from her gift as a fire witch, but an inner loveliness coupled with a generous and compassionate heart. Gilene suffers much on behalf of her village to save other women though she receives poor treatment in return. This well-crafted story is quite a heart pounder in places with characters the reader will come to care about very quickly. The action, adventure, and slow burn love story are very well paced and will take you on an intense and satisfying journey. Both Gilene and Azarion are people who refused to let their untenable situations destroy their souls or give in to the degradation over which they had no control. The great pleasures in Ms. Draven’s writing include an excellent tale, memorable characters, and fine storytelling with an emotional voyage taking readers on quite an intense ride. Ms. Draven’s fine attention to detail makes for a lush story of fantasy powered by real emotions to take the reader on a most wonderful journey.