The Phoenix King by Aparna Verma
Orbit Books, pb, £9.19
Reviewed by Mikaela Silk
A kingdom on the verge of war. A King on the verge of insanity. An assassin on the verge of freedom. A princess on the verge of embracing her power. But the scales could tip either way. As the days tick down to Elena’s coronation, she and Yassen will have to learn to trust each other if they are to get the outcomes that they both want.
The world this book is set in offers a unique amalgamation of science-fiction and fantasy. On one end of the spectrum are the futuristic pulse guns, hovercars, and a man merged with metal; on the other, god-gifted fire magic and a woman with blades for hair. At first, I found this quite jarring, but as I read on, these contrasting elements began to blend seamlessly into the fabric of the world. The success of this is, I think, down to the carefully crafted but simple descriptions. The magic is limited to the royal family and very specific in nature, so there is no question of technology being surplus to requirement or redundant in comparison. The technological advancements all have an easily identifiable utilitarian purpose and are introduced with clear context and explanations.
Similarly, the culture and history of the fantasy world hold great depth and breadth without ever overwhelming the reader with unnecessarily complex details. We are introduced to a variety of neighbouring nations, but only the ones essential to the plot are explored beyond the basics. There is a well-established religion with a clear hierarchy, and its ceremonies and rituals are used as the backdrop for multiple important plot points. Yet there is never more background information than is needed to set the atmosphere of the scene, leaving the reader entranced with no risk of growing bored.
A varied cast of characters plays centre stage in this world. Their relationships have more complexity and nuance than the court politics, making them the shining light of this book. There is not an inch of Leo, Yassen, or Elena’s characters that is not explored and a whole rainbow of emotions is played out. One character that I would have liked to see more of is Ferma; she makes for such a strong and important character, yet we learn very little of her history.
Overall, Aparna Verma leaves no room for confusion or contradiction but plenty of space for praise!