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Fallen Empire #1

Phoenix Unbound

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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. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.

431 pages, ebook

First published September 25, 2018

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About the author

Grace Draven

48 books6,525 followers
I'm an author and Louisiana native living in Texas with my husband, three smalls and a big doofus dog. I have lived in Spain, hiked the Teton Mountains, honeymooned in Scotland, ridden in competition rodeo and am the great great granddaughter of a Nicaraguan president. I also hate doing laundry and refuse to iron anything.

I've loved storytelling since forever. I published my first short story with Amber Quill Press and have since written several other tales. A love of the bad boy in fiction always inspires me.

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Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.2k followers
March 11, 2020

ARC provided by Berkley in exchange for an honest review.

“Witch-fire the villagers named it. An ancient magic woven into the flesh and fabric of a single girl child born each generation in Beroe. No one knew from whence it originated or why only one woman from every generation in a small village inherited it, but the village elders had kept its secret close and had deceived the Empire for decades.”

When Berkley offered me this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the author wrote a book that many of my friends love, Radiance, but that’s honestly all I really knew. But friends, I was completely enthralled and captivated by this from page one. I never wanted to put this down, I fell so in love with the romance in this book, and this is one of my new favorite fantasy romances of all time. And I immediately added Radiance to my TBR!

I will say that the world in this book is very dark, so please use caution while reading. Content and trigger warnings for rape (brief, but at the very start of the book), attempted rape, threats of rape, assault, slavery, captivity, death, murder, torture, gore, violence, sacrificial ritual, blood depiction, self-harm, misogynistic comments, sexual content and war themes.

“Be still. Be silent. Some lust for beauty, others for fear. Don’t show them yours.”

But in this world, every year the surrounding villages are forced to give the empire girls to be given to the gladiators for the night, to only be burned at a pyre come morning. And if a village refuses to give up a girl, they will be made an example of. The empire is the farthest thing from forgiving, and both our main characters witness this first hand.

Gilene - Fire witch who has been the sacrificial girl for her village for the last four years, using her magic to disguises herself as a new girl. Even though she has to endure the torture of the night, she is able to walk free from the fire every year, without anyone noticing. Well, she didn’t think anyone could notice.

“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.”

Azarion - The prime gladiator of the empire for the last ten years. He is a slave, and forced to fight in the arena, yet it also constantly gains him the attention of the Empress who does terrible things to him, in and out of her bed. Yet, when the girls to be sacrificed come in, and he has first pick, he sees a girl that he knows has been there before. And she might be his only chance at freedom.

And the two of their paths come together, and they are both harboring secrets that will change the outcome of the other’s world. Friends, I fell so hard and so fast for this romance. Let me for sure preface the rest of the review with that I am aware there is a very big power imbalance between Gilene and Azarion, since he does force her to help him more than what she agreed to. She is forced to be his captive for about half of this book, but it never feels like a stockholm syndrome type of storyline, at least not to me. And even though this is a dark book with a bit of a power imbalance, the author puts a huge emphasis on consent. And even when Azarion is using his privilege over Gilene, it is always and constantly challenged.

“I will conquer all of the Empire to bring you back.”

(Beautiful fanart by Melanie Bourgeois!) ❤

I think this book always has a really thought-provoking message about living your life for you, and not living your life for the expectations that your family places upon you. Duty is a huge theme in this book, and Gilene and Azarion both become aware that they are so much more than what they are expected to do, and that they both deserve happiness. And I loved watching them both come together, both willing to sacrifice it all for their homes, to both realize that they are worthy of love; not just glory.

And even though this is the start of a series, I really appreciated that the author really made this feel like a complete book. There is no terrible cliffhanger (even though the twists and turns are abundant), there is no unnecessary angst, there are no scenes that feel like filler. Yet, you are left wanting to read a hundred more books set in this world. Seriously, I’m here and ready for a book about a certain healer, a certain witch who can speak to the dead, and a certain f/f side romance that had me swooning. Like, all three (or four) books now, please! I’m begging!

Overall, I really loved this. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the writing is lush and beautiful, and the characters are phenomenal. I feel like it is so hard to find a good fantasy romance these days. Yes, there are a ton of good fantasy with swoon-worthy romances, and my heart will always love the PNR genre more than words, but I always have found it difficult to find a lot of actual fantasy romances. Honestly, the only other one that I love that comes to mind is The Bird and the Sword. Like, I hope 2019 is the year that we just get a ton of books that beautiful blend romance and fantasy the way that Phoenix Unbound has done, because I need more. I can’t wait to see what Grace Draven does next in this world.

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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Buddy read with Amy at A Court of Crowns and Quills! ❤
Profile Image for Katerina.
422 reviews16.8k followers
September 21, 2018
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.

[Source of this incredible fan art]

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.

Review also posted on BookNest!
Profile Image for Laura Thalassa.
Author 34 books16.7k followers
April 23, 2018

What a freaking ride! This book was everything I wanted and more. I'm desperately hoping this is the beginning of a series because I need M-O-R-E!

So if any of you have seen me on Facebook, you know I've been harping about this book for a while now. I mean, Grace won me over with Radiance, so I know anything she writes is gold, but when she happened to mention researching kurgans (totally worth Wiki-ing if you've never heard of the term before) the psycho archaeology nut in me went rabid. PSA: You DO NOT have to know anything about this topic to enjoy the book.

I think Grace took pity on me because I was light-core stalking her updates on Phoenix Unbound, and I got an ARC. (*squeals* I still can't believe I got an ARC!) Moral of the story: creeping on authors can get you ARCs. Just kidding kids. Don't stalk.

Now onto the book itself. (This book!!!!) Aside from the backdrop, it had an enemies-to-lovers story line, which I have SUCH a weakness for. Truly what I adore about these relationships are the wide range of emotions you feel for each character, and how, over time, they shift, seemingly without you noticing. Grace developed this masterfully.

But perhaps the thing I love most about Grace's writing is how real it is. The characters aren't cliches, they look and think like real people; the world is so thoroughly and intricately crafted (more on that); even the magical elements are folded into the story in a way that makes sense.

In this vein, there's a theme that runs throughout this book: nothing comes free--not love, not magic, not loyalty, not even freedom. Each one is hard fought for, and all have consequences.

Now, the worldbuilding. I feel like this deserves a mention of its own. No one does fantasy like Grace Draven does. Seriously. I think that behind every amazing fantasy book is a lush, semi-historical backdrop, and this book is no exception. I'm pretty sure years of research went into the creation of Phoenix Unbound. Even though it's not a "historical" romance, the workings of the world were touched on in a way that made it so very vivid and impossible to write about without having a great deal of knowledge on the subject. Grace must've read up on how to ferment mare's milk and how to hand-dye linen. She must've studied how seasons affect the movements of herd animals and how that, in turn, might affect the nomads that live off of said herds. She must've researched guilds and gladiators and traveling merchants and archaic healing methods, and on and on and on the list goes. None of these details ever really draw attention to themselves (because this ISN'T a history or even a historical romance), but it's a testament to how truly singular Grace Draven is as a fantasy author that she makes sure she knows her world down to its most humble workings.

All in all, Phoenix Unbound was a beautifully written fantasy that took me away from my life for a time. Grace weaves a spellbinding book that is impossible to forget. Even now, days after I've finished it, the story still lingers with me. I can't give this book enough praise. I came into it with stupidly high expectations, and it exceeded them all.

*Now cue one hell of a book hangover.*


I GOT AN ARC!!!!! This is literally my most anticipated read of the year, and I'm not sure I can handle having this thing on my kindle.

I started this last night, and OMG, guys, GUYS, you know when you want to cry and shout at the same time because a book is so good you swear it was written for you?

That's this mutha effin book.

This BOOK.

Alright, a much longer and fleshed out review is coming as soon as I finish this thing!
Profile Image for Princess under cover.
571 reviews244 followers
June 11, 2020
Update: rounded down again because I can't get over the selfishness of the heroine and the impossibility of the hero's 10 year daily rape backdrop.

Woke up mad this morning and took it down another star. 2.5 stars rounded down. Then did some research and rounded back up. Points below are still valid.

Hmm. This is going to be a hard review to write. I think for hard-core fantasy readers, this might float their boat more:
* Lots of world building (sometimes so detailed I skip and try to get to a faster-moving place in the plotline.) Reminds me of how bored I got reading my first Tolkien book.
* Romance is good and progressive but certainly not the center of attention. For hard-core romance readers, this might not scratch your itch entirely. I know it didn't scratch mine.
* Mature characters who aren't perfect but inherently good. In other words, I can get behind them, though it took me a lot longer to warm up to Gilene.
* There is a plotline and it's coherent. It began with a bang, totally dragged out for like 50-60% and then ramped up again around 70% into a big finish.

Perhaps if I liked fantasy as much as I do romance, I would give this book 5 stars. Unfortunately, I like romance first and foremost, everything else is embroidery around it. So here are a few things that made me take off a star and a half (because the more I write, the more pissed off I get):

* If you see my reading notes, you'll see that I got stuck on the "anatomically possible/ impossible" scenario in the beginning that is the backdrop for a lot of things. I need help, male readers! to answer this question: If you were daily abused by a beautiful, evil woman who hurt you physically (really bad whippings, make you fight to the death, stabbing, etc.) who then raped you at the end of that, either by force herself or gang rape with other men and women, or all of the above, and if you didn't get your cock up to please her, she'd punish you even more, maybe to the point of death, maybe cut your balls off, etc.,

WOULD YOU BE ABLE TO GET HARD TO HAVE SEX WITH HER IN ORDER TO AVOID THE ABUSE? Sure, the last time you failed to "please" her, you "peed blood for several days", but I mean, seriously, can you train your penis to NOT wilt in the face of all that pressure and actually get AROUSED (and yes, the author said he was AROUSED!!!) by her even tho you want to tear her head from her shoulders??????

Let's take a poll, shall we? Please post your answers, men (and women who can ask your menfolk) whether this is AT ALL POSSIBLE TO DO!


I get that he's "a survivor." People train themselves to do unbelievable things under extreme duress. But I for one am 99.99% certain that this is actually biologically impossible.

UNLESS. He actually got off on the violence himself. And the adrenaline charged his penis enough to be stiff. And his fury added to the fuel... in which case I question whether I really like this H.

Now, granted, this author isn't the only person to depict these things - similar things happen in Spartacus, the HBO series which I watched quite religiously. BUT, the difference is that the gladiators were merely expected to service the rabid wealthy women, who didn't actually do heinous things to them to the extent of the things done to Azarion in this novel BEFORE they were expected to perform! The author went into some detail to set this all up in the beginning, most of which I skipped because I wasn't enjoying the "anticipation." And then referred to this many, many times later as a critical point that shapes the Hero's character and his entire raison d'etre.

So given the criticality of this scene and this backdrop, you understand why I'm a bit obsessed with the validity of the whole setup.

I've read other rape scenes before, some explicit, some implied. This one went somewhat beyond the pale for me, and BTW, so did that Maas book A court of whatever in which Rhys was tortured much the same way by some evil queen - thankfully didn't read the first book to get to the details, the mentions about it in the second book was already enough to turn me off--in that it made me want to disconnect and distracted me from the story being told. So I wonder at the extremeness of it. Whether it was necessary to get the point across. It's very hard for an author to write these types of situations and not turn readers off. I think she might have tipped a little over the edge for me on this one.

Now, I get this is FICTION and lots of things happen in fiction, BUT - and I just checked with a male friend of mine who knows a lot about this stuff A GUY JUST WON'T BE ABLE TO GET HARD IN THAT SCENARIO!

This is a big no-no for me. It made me skip a bunch of pages I paid for. Made the author work extra hard to win me back into her good graces with the rest of the novel.

So then, immediately after this RIDICULOUS, PIVOTAL scene happened, the H comes back to the cell he was sharing with the h, and she's sort of nice to him, she sees everything he's suffering, but afterwards, she can't seem to see anything from his POV, too wrapped up in her own little world. It takes her til around 60% before she starts to empathize like a normal person would. So it made me dislike her for 60% of the book.

I get that she's fighting her own battles. I get that she has a huge burden to carry and she's resentful of it. But here's a slave just like her who suffers horrendously and she sees it all, and it doesn't seem to trigger enough compassion for her to try to understand him better in all the 60% (of boring) alone time they had together as they escaped from the capital and journeyed to his homelands. I don't know. Maybe I skipped over the bonding bits? But I don't think I did. I skipped over a bunch of descriptions that didn't move the plot along or help with character dev.

And BTW, aside from the H suffering some flashbacks and reminders of his brutal daily rape over 10 years, he doesn't seem to have any other complex about it. That also doesn't seem possible! Really?????? I mean really???????

That all being said, the progression as of 50-60% to the end of the book was pretty good. Good pace, good climax, good interaction between the two main characters. Redeemed itself for me.

I'd give it 3.5 stars, rounded up for good writing, then rounded down again because I'm pissed even if I won't be reading more of this writing any time soon. I liked the Wraith Kings 2-book (and I guess the book I want to read book 3) deal. Also didn't like the torture she put on the H at the end of the first book.

Are all fantasy books this TORTUROUS??? I have a feeling the answer might be yes, since I've read more of the same in other fantasy books too. Maybe fantasy is just not my cup of tea if I keep getting stuck on these things.


OK, done with rant. Really liked H, and grew to like h too in the end (but not for most of the book).

This book was good enough, brilliant in some places like the beginning and end, but definitely not overall great for me.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
November 16, 2018
3.5 stars. Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:

The Krael Empire is a brutal and corrupt kingdom, reminiscent of the Roman Empire, with leaders who are intent on expanding its borders by conquering its neighbors. Inside its borders, life is nightmarish for those of its people who get the short end of the stick … like Gilene and Azarion. Gilene is a young woman from a small village with a deep secret, known only to the other villagers. She has a magical affinity for fire, as well as the ability to create illusions, where she takes on the appearance of someone ― or something ― else. These powers come in handy each year when the Krael emperor and empress hold the Rites of Spring, forcibly collecting women from each village to be a “Flower of Spring.” The name glosses over the actual fate of these women: they spend a night being raped by the kingdom’s enslaved gladiators, and the next day they are sacrificed, burned alive in a bonfire as an offering to the gods, along with the bodies of the gladiators who lost their battles to the death in the previous day’s battles.

Gilene represents her village of Beroe each year in the terrible Rites of Spring, suffering through the night of rape, but then escaping the next day through an illusion when the bonfire burns its highest, only to return the next year, and the next after that. Though the fire doesn’t directly burn her, she pays a painful price each time she exercises her magical power over fire. And although she hates it, she bows to the emotional pressure from her village to do this each year, since no one else has the power to do what she does.

Azarion is the Gladius Prime, the best of all the gladiators. Ten years ago he was betrayed by a relative in his own land, kidnapped and sold into slavery. His reward for winning his battles and killing countless opponents is to be physically abused, whipped and then raped by the sadistic Krael empress ― a scene that is graphically depicted in the second chapter.

Why yes, this book has a really brutal beginning. Why do you ask?

After this extremely rough start, things settle down somewhat for our main characters. Azarion has the ability to see through Gilene’s illusions, and concocts a plan to use her ability to escape slavery and return to his kingdom. He selects Gilene as the woman to spend the night with him, but instead of assaulting her he blackmails her into helping him escape. But rather than letting her go afterwards, he kidnaps her and carries her off to his country, planning to use her ability to help him win the leadership of his nomadic clan. Gilene is not interested in what he’s offering, but Azarion isn’t giving her any choice in the matter. They head to his homeland called the Sky Below, passing through a colossal wall of flame called the Fire Veil that magically protects the western border of their land from the encroaching Krael Empire.

The rest of Phoenix Unbound (2018) follows a fairly familiar fantasy path. Azarion’s clan leads a fairly traditional nomadic lifestyle, except for the group of revered women who, like Gilene, can magically control fire. Both Gilene and Azarion have challenges to overcome, he with his leadership ambitions and she in proving herself as one of the agacin, a woman who controls fire. They gradually and somewhat predictably fall in love, but they may not have a future together because she feels morally obligated to return to her village before the next spring equinox, so no other villager will have to die in her stead. The pacing in the middle section of the book lags somewhat as the primary focus shifts to their relationship, but picks up again for an exciting climax and moving dénouement.

Phoenix Unbound is a magical fantasy with a sweet, slow-burn romance between its two emotionally damaged protagonists, both of whom have suffered a great deal. However, it’s only for readers who don’t mind a strong side of brutality and grittiness. If this were a movie, it would get a pretty hard R rating for violence, murder, explicit sex (both consensual and non-consensual), human sacrifice, sexual sadism, and language. The first few chapters are by far the roughest, so if you can handle reading those, you’re probably fine for the rest of the book.

Though Phoenix Unbound is the first book in Draven’s FALLEN EMPIRE series, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger and it would be fine as a stand-alone read. Though I’m interested in seeing where the series goes next, I’m also leery of the high level of harsh explicit content, so it’s a toss-up right now as to which side of the wall of flame I’ll come down on.

Thanks to Berkley/Penguin Random House for the ARC! This is my voluntary review.

Content notes: Hard R. See my comments above.
Profile Image for Riley.
427 reviews21.1k followers
April 8, 2020
enemies to lovers excellence
Profile Image for destiny ♡ howling libraries.
1,661 reviews5,141 followers
March 2, 2020
Every now and then, I get in these reading moods—more and more often lately—where I find myself craving a really good, swoon-worthy fantasy romance. I’d been in that mood for a few weeks when I decided to pick up Phoenix Unbound, and let me tell you, damn, does this book hit the spot.

For Gilene, spring was the season neither of rain nor of planting, but of suffering.

Born a fire-witch, one of Gilene’s various magical abilities is that she is unharmed by fire—which means that, in her village of Beroe, she is forced to attend each year’s sacrificial slaughter in the Empire, where a woman from each village is burned alive for entertainment and holy blessings. We quickly learn that her sacrifice comes not just from selflessness, but from the village’s shackles on her family; if Gilene refuses, her loved ones will pay the cost. So, each year, she burns again and again, as she slowly becomes this jaded, cynical woman whose sole purpose is to keep struggling through life until the next spring’s sacrifices.

Despite (or as a result of) being a victim of so many varying abuses—whether it’s the village folk’s entrapment of her family, or the rape and burning she undergoes each spring, or the fact that she is forced to watch innocent women die at her side year after year—Gilene is such a strong, no-nonsense heroine, and I freaking love it. She’s tough as nails, but with a heart of pure gold, and she treasures her responsibility and family above all else.

To endure was to survive.

On the other hand, we have Azarion, whose “privileges” as the top gladiator in the Empire don’t negate the fact that he is a man who’s been sold into a vicious slavery trade. He faces daily abuses varying from physical to sexual and everything in between, and he bears countless scars, inside and out, but he is also a man with a mission to return to his people, and he refuses to let anything break him.

My heart broke for Azarion every step of the way. I know he doesn’t always do the right things, but he progresses so much and recognizes his own flaws, and even before he reaches that point, I couldn’t bring myself to fault him because what he’s gone through is just so brutal. Plus, I know I always talk about this, but I’m such a sucker for grouchy heroes with mushy, soft hearts under their tough exteriors, and Azarion totally fits the bill.

“This is why I hate the Empire most of all,” she said. “Because it’s twisted us into people we despise.”

If you’re looking for a slow-burning, methodical fantasy story, look no further, because the bulk of Phoenix Unbound is actually about Azarion and Gilene’s journey to find Azarion’s people, and the lengths he must go to in order to reclaim his birthright. There’s a wonderful amount of world-building, as well as side characters everywhere you turn that are so lovable and complex (including my favorite, Azarion’s queer sister, Tamura). There’s nonstop suspense, and I was surprised by a few incredibly creepy scenes including dark, ghostlike entities that were not here to play.

“I once thought I would always hate you, gladiator. That isn’t true now.”

If you’re like me, though, what drew you to this story was probably the promise of a fantastic enemies-to-lovers romance, and this does not disappoint in the least. The buildup between these two is agonizingly slow at times, but in the best way—I flew through every chapter, knowing the wait would be worth it, and I was so right.

Gilene and Azarion are two wonderful, wholesome, broken people, and watching them come together is the perfect star-crossed tragedy. I wanted so many more sweet scenes between them, and even if I wasn’t invested in the overall plot with the corrupted Empire, I know I would be coming back just for more of these two.

Fate was a vicious taskmaster of cruel, arbitrary humors, but every once in a while, it granted a boon in its own twisted way.

Phoenix Unbound was an absolutely delightful read that I could not get enough of. I binge read the entire book in one day, and immediately wanted more when it was over. I don’t know how I’m possibly going to wait for the sequel, but I am so happy that it’s listed as the beginning of a series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Content warnings for rape (including an explicit, on-page scene in chapter 2), physical abuse, violence, murder, imprisonment, infertility.

All quotes come from an advance copy and may not match the final release. Thank you so much to Berkley/Ace for providing me with this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Profile Image for Robin (Bridge Four).
1,608 reviews1,481 followers
October 31, 2018
Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Yes!!!!


This was fantastic and I loved the entire thing. This won’t be for everyone since it is brutal in places but for me it has everything I really love in a book.

#1 - Characters that have been through some heavy shit.

Azarion has been a gladiator for ten years, is now the Gladius Prime and the unfortunate toy and brutalized play thing of the Empress for almost as long. He is a slave and but has held on with the hope of escaping the pits.
Beautiful, soft, and perfumed, Dalvila of Krael could raise an erection in a corpse, and Azarion wasn’t immune to her physical charms. He couldn’t be. He’d learned quickly that to displease her in bed courted imminent death.

Gilene is a fire witch and every year she does her duty and is sacrificed as a Flower of Spring. She marches to the capitol with the other women slotted to die on the pyre. She is her village’s sacrifice and with illusion casts a new face on herself, she has marched to her supposed death along side them knowing that it will eat a little more of her soul and her body every year.
”Sometimes you do the thing you hate so others don’t have to, whether it’s from love, guilt, or blackmail.”

They are so similar in their stubbornness and their need to survive. They will do just about anything to make sure that they come out on the other side okay, no matter the cost to others.

#2 – This is an enemies to friends to lovers sort of tale

Do not think for a second that the Romance is at the forefront in book. It is not. It is off to the side and kitty corner from the plot. Azarion needs Gilene, first for his escape and then later to help him reclaim his place with his people. He cares for nothing else and is not apologetic about it at all.
She envied Azarion because he’d broken free of the shackles the Empire had put upon him. Though she had been one of the Empire’s many victims, Gilene had never been one of its slaves. She belonged to Beroe instead, and those chains would hold her until she died.

Gilene has one goal. To make it back to her people before the next spring so that she can be sacrificed as a Flower of Spring. She will put up with even Azarion if he can keep her ahead of the empire tracking them and keep his promise to return her home.

I love how they uneasy alliance they formed began to change and grow to admiration, respect and eventually more. Both have scars both literal and figurative and they both see past those to the weapons and people that have been honed but the trials they have faced.

#3 – The worldbuilding captured my interest

I really enjoyed the lore and magic of this book. The culture of Azarion’s people and the magic Gilene carries. There are also hints of other types of magic throughout the book that lead me to believe there are many subtle forms of it in this world. I liked the different horse clans and how they operated. I also enjoyed the idea of the struggle against the Empire. It definitely reminded me of the Roman Empire a little.

There are other charaters in the book that held a lot of interest for me. Especially the Halani who could have some sort of healing magic and the bird woman who could talk to the dead. I definitely think there are more stories in this world yet to be told.

#4 – An engaging plot that kept the pages turning

It was absolutely amazing how fast this story went by for me. I didn’t want to put it down and woke up in the middle of the night because I just needed to read more of it. Towards the end I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see how it would all play out and if Azarion would find a way to defeat the Capitol so that Gilene would never have to be a Flower of Spring again for her people.

#5 – Satisfying Ending

Okay, it could have been just a smidge sappier for the romantic in me but it was still super solid. I think this won’t be the last book in this world but it ended at a great spot so that you could decide not to continue with other books and be satisfied. But it was so good why wouldn’t you read another book in this world?


This was right in my wheelhouse and I loved every minute reading it. I’m excited to read anything else written in this world by Grace Draven.
Profile Image for Paige ♠.
284 reviews849 followers
March 14, 2021
Ehhh. I kind of feel bad giving this two stars but I really didn't enjoy it.

THE STORY WAS SO SLOW in the first half of the book. Agonizingly slow. Almost nothing meaningful happened because they were just running from the guards as they escaped the capital. This type of storyline is almost always uninteresting to me, and especially so in this book

I DON'T LIKE VILLAINS who are evil just because. A believable villain needs to have some sort of justification and backstory for his or her actions. This story had none of that. Why was the empress such a monster? Why did the empire require women to sacrifice themselves each spring? I have no idea 🤷‍♀️ This made it hard for me to sympathize with anyone in the story

THERE WAS A LACK OF chemistry between Gilene and Azarion and I just wasn't very invested in their romance. I finished this book less than ten minutes ago and had to open it back up to look up Azarion's name. That's how memorable I found it

THIS AUTHOR ALWAYS DOES a great job writing rational characters that make reasonable choices. Even if I didn't enjoy their romance, I could always understand the choices Gilene and Azarion made

Overall, I was disappointed with this book. I really loved Radiance by Grace Draven so I thought I would give another series by her a chance. I'm definitely not going to continue with this series and am still tbd on whether I'll read her other books.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,430 reviews985 followers
October 1, 2018
Grace Draven books always seems to have a very interesting premise, but for whatever reason I just never find myself really drawn into them. They are written well enough with believable (yet a little sparse) world building, but the story pacing is where I find myself zoning out at times.

The basic idea behind this book is that in a fantasy world there is an empire that forces every town to sacrifice a woman to be taken to the capital for a ritual burning. One town has a woman (Gilene) who can't be burned by the flames, so she is sent every year. This year in the capital she meets a man (Azarion) who is forced to be a gladiator for the empire and he blackmails her into freeing him. He neglects to mention he is also going to need her help so he can win back his position in his hometown/clan (none of this is a spoiler - it's in the blurb). I liked that Gilene resists Azarian at first but I wished there was more witty bickering or something between them. Instead they travel together quite a bit which isn't exciting, and then there is some clan politics which is a bit boring, and then at the end there is a big battle because basically every fantasy book ends with a battle. None of that stuff interested me much. I was hoping for perhaps some dramatic cultural shunning of Gilene by Azarian's clan, or conniving attempts to kill Azarian immediately upon his return. Instead everything happens in a pretty linear fashion with no real twists until pretty much the very end.

Once again I find myself reading the first book of one of Draven's series, but feeling zero need to read any subsequent books. Let me know when she starts a new series, I'll probably give it a try once again anyways LOL
Shelved as 'fantasy-wishlist'
December 28, 2019
Spoiler: OK, so I didn't get an ARC, but Amazon is doing this cool deal where you get $5 back if you spend $20 on ebooks, so I bought a whole bunch of books I've been wanting for a while and used my credit to get this puppy. #YAAASS


Profile Image for Minni Mouse.
627 reviews962 followers
September 25, 2018
2.5 stars because after the first few action-packed and suspenseful chapters, the rest was surprisingly boring. Like, long-journey-to-nowhere-and-aimless-basket weaving-with-the-in laws level of boring.

1) Book chemistry at first with the Ancient Civilizations setting and slave trope and gladiators and escaping together and speshull powers.

2) Gritty worldbuilding in those first few chapters with violence and depravity. I was about to settle in for a grim, unabashed fantasy story.

1) Wait, what? So why does Gilene have the ability to change her face? Why was there no mention whatsoever of her family and brothers after her abduction right before their eyes? What was the significance of that haunted Midigar city? Who or what was the main antagonist supposed to be if not the Empress or Azarion's cousin? What was the point of the Guild caravan since we spent so long with them? Why

2) If felt like this was the first draft of the story rather than the final. Missing character development, uneven plot development, and murky world building all up the wazoo. We'd have whole chapters of scenes and secondary characters that literally added nothing crucial to the story other than to weigh it down.

3) Zero chemistry between Gilene and Azarion.

4) Zero effs about the purpose of the story or what each main person's character motivation defined their journeys.

Felt like a weaker, bastardized version of both the culture assimilation of Warprize as well as the goddess powers of Immortal Fire ...except without the intrigue and mysticism and quality.

Romantasy is one of my favorite genres ever and I was so incredibly excited to start this book. Unfortunately, it lost whatever tone it was going for and became an off-kilter blend of half-hearted wanderings. It wasn't a romantasy, guilty-pleasure kidnapping journey like A Promise of Fire , a depraved story like Mistress of Rome, a blending of cultures and romance like Outlander, nor a mythology fantasy like Red Winter . It just felt so out of place and dull. Started liberally skimming by 20% through the end.

Unfortunate misfire by a trusted favorite author.
Profile Image for Corina.
759 reviews2,128 followers
September 16, 2018
Phoenix Unbound has been a highly anticipated novel for me. I have enjoyed Grace Draven’s past novels and I couldn’t wait to read this first book in a new series.

I enjoyed getting into this new story. Phoenix Unbound opened up a wonderfully vibrant and detailed new world. The premise alone was fascinating. Engaging characters, and a slow burn romance kept me flipping the pages.

A gladiator and a witch just sounded too fascinating not to pick up.

And I’m glad I did.

Grace Draven knows how to tell a story. Layered, complex and captivating, Phoenix Unbound promises a new wonderful series that I can’t wait to read more about it.

But I must admit, the novel wasn’t perfect. At times the story dragged, and the chemistry between the characters was slow to develop. That could have been because it was the first book in a new series, or because it was only the first book about this couple. At this point I don’t know if the second book will be about Gilene and Azarion again or not. I would certainly love for it to be about Gilene and Azarion. I want to know so much more about this couple, and they just started on their journey together.

But what I can say with certainty is that I’m hooked. I want to read more about this fascinating world, its people and the characters I met so far.

For more of my reviews:
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Profile Image for Christie«SHBBblogger».
959 reviews1,245 followers
September 30, 2018

Title: Phoenix Unbound
Series: Fallen Empire #1
Author: Grace Draven
Release date: September 25, 2018
Cliffhanger: No

She and this slave fighter shared a common truth. He dealt death with sword and ax, and she with fire. Neither commanded their fates.

This is exactly the kind of fantasy I love to read, but is so difficult to find. The storyline instantly engaged me, first of all. Which is not very common in the genre, as a general rule. The first in a fantasy series tends to take more time to get into because of the world building detail. In this case, Grace Draven has done a flawless job setting the scene in bite sized increments that allow you to sink your teeth into the real flesh of the story. I didn't waste a moment of this book. I painstakingly consumed it, savoring the atmospheric world one word at a time. You will take a trip out of the dank cells at the coliseum with captive blood soaked gladiators, through haunted towns, barrows with demonic guardians, past the imposing fire veil to the beautiful Sky Below. Where revenge will be satisfied, and two reluctant hearts will twine together that are destined to be torn apart.

Azarion and Gilene's personal plights are front and center from page one in gritty, raw, detail. Enslaved to the foul Empire, they no longer have the privilege of living a normal life. Their whole existence is narrowed down to one simple goal: survival. Honor, perseverance, and courage are traits they both share, and they were both equally heroic characters in their own right. Be prepared for them to cast their spell upon you and leave you utterly enchanted.

When the struggle only pleased the torturer and made the torture worse, you stopped fighting and learned to endure. To endure was to survive.

Gilene has the unfortunate duty of being the sacrificial lamb for Beroe year after year. Every generation, one person is born with her gift of fire manipulation. They're expected to become a "Flower of Spring" to be burned on the pyre as an offering to the gods. She faces her responsibility with grim obedience, because the alternative would weigh too heavily on her conscience. How could she refuse, when other lives would be lost unnecessarily? Possibly even those in her own family? While I admired her for her incredible strength, those she protected were selfish and weak in comparison.

I loathed them all for hiding behind her, and forcing her into a lifetime of hell. Physically and emotionally, she's a force to be reckoned with. Spiritually she is broken. The bitterness she feels towards the gods is something that holds her back from grasping who she truly is. She is a woman of immense power, even holding the ability of illusion, which is unheard of for other fire witches. Her latest illusion is about to fail her in the most spectacular of ways, and it will change her life forever.

Azarion is the Gladius Prime at the Coliseum. After ten years of enslavement to the Empire, he has become the fiercest fighter to play in their deadly games. He lives with one goal in mind, and that is to return to the Stara Dragana and reclaim what was stolen from him so long ago. All of the torture he's suffered only fueled the fire inside him to find justice. Gilene is his key to achieving that, and he doesn't hesitate to coerce, threaten, and kidnap in order to set his plan in motion.

There wasn't a moment of boredom with these two as they made their way to his clan on their long journey. Their path certainly wasn't for the faint of heart, but luckily they were both well used to tests of character and strength. Together, they were a force to be reckoned with. Grudgingly, on her part. While he grew closer to everything he ever wanted with each step they took, hers took her away from where she was honor bound to be. The tension between them was well done, ratcheting up my excitement to see them come together and help find some measure of healing.

Painful memories battered him. He allowed them their abuse, then pushed them away. He might one day be able to face them and not flinch, scatter them into nothing because they no longer meant anything to him, but today was not that day.

This book. This incredible book. I loved every single minute in between the pages, and my mind refused to leave long after I closed it. It holds nothing back and goes right for the jugular. It was brutal fights, lovers finding tender solace, awe-inspiring backdrops, and some kick ass, powerful magic. Most importantly, as you can expect from Grace Draven, she has created characters you have no choice but to become invested in, and root for good to conquer evil.

It's invigorating to find a fantasy that isn't something you've read a million times before. It was different even from what I was expecting based on what she delivered in Radiance. It had a noticeably darker tone, but she didn't skimp on the emotional development of the romance in between the suspense. It was a slow burn in the background that was magnificent when it finally sparked.

The ending was breathtaking!! My heart was in my throat the entire time, and I was white-knuckling my kindle through the action. And the good news? There is NO cliffy at the end, it leaves you with more story to tell, but not in a place of suspense. So really, what are you waiting for? Go one-click this stunning introduction to the Fallen Empire series, where a thrilling adventure awaits you.


Profile Image for Carole (Carole's Random Life).
1,728 reviews465 followers
September 25, 2018
This review can also be found at Carole's Random Life in Books.

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.

Initial Thoughts
I thought that this was really good. Gilene and Azarion were both great characters and I loved that we got to see then in a number of really interesting and varied settings. There was plenty of action and suspenseful moments in addition to a few that melted my heart. This one is definitely worth picking up.
Profile Image for Beth.
3,129 reviews262 followers
September 24, 2018
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. Phoenix Unbound is set for publication September 25, 2018.

Rating: 5 stars
A FAVORITE Read for 2018
Written by: Grace Draven
Series: The Fallen Empire (Book 1)
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Ace (September 25, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0451489756
ISBN-13: 978-0451489753
Genre: Romantic High Fantasy

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Phoenix-Unboun...
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/phoe...
Itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/phoe...

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Profile Image for h o l l i s .
2,405 reviews1,853 followers
August 2, 2018
So, right off the bat I have to clarify that this isn't quite as good as Wraith Kings or Master of Crows or, my all-time fave, ENTREAT ME. The writing for this particular new series feels different, not bad different, just.. had you handed me this book and had me guess the author, I would never have suspected Draven. I don't know if it's just me or what but I look forward to discussing that with others as more and more people get their hands on this title.

"I may curse your name for dragging me here. But I shall never forget this place. I shall never forget you."

That said! I definitely enjoyed this. The worldbuilding, the various cultures of the people within, the magic, it was all interesting. We have a reluctant partnership between our two leads, though said partnership is more in a reluctant captive to their captor situation, but the slowburn subtle change in their relationship is delightful. It isn't as intense or swoony as Draven's previous OTPs but she's a spunky fire witch who is driven to annual sacrifice and pain for her people because she feels it is her duty and he's an unwilling gladiator who has survived a decade of violence and abuse with the hope that one day he will return to his home.

"What if I had fallen or couldn't keep up?"
"I would have carried you."

The pacing does feel a mite off, some weird transitions, and because this is listed as first in the series I definitely expected a cliffhanger with the way things start going near the end. And there wasn't one. Which made certain events feel kind of.. off. I don't know. The very end was great but there was a weird lull after a whole lot of action and I don't really know if there is to be more or what.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this. Though it maybe lacked some of the usual Draven magic and intensity that I've come to expect, all the elements are still there and so I'm going to round up on this baby.

3.75 "not all shackles were fashioned of iron" stars
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
2,032 reviews2,604 followers
September 24, 2018
4 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum https://bibliosanctum.com/2018/09/24/...

The first and only other book I’ve ever read by Grace Draven is Master of Crows, and clearly she has come a long way in the almost ten years since then. What hasn’t changed at all though, is her knack for writing a swoon-worthy fantasy romance. Speaking of someone who typically stays away from this subgenre, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Phoenix Unbound.

Set in a world inspired by the bloodier and more decadent elements of the Roman Empire, this story follows the journey of two people thrust together under unfortunate circumstances. Every year during the Rites of Spring, the capital holds a lavish festival in which a great bonfire ceremony takes place requiring each village to offer up a young woman as sacrifice to be burned alive. However, the village of Beroe has a secret: for the last five years, they have sent the same woman. Gilene is her name, and as a fire witch, she cannot be burned. Using her magic, she changes her appearance, takes her place on the pyre, and then conjures up an illusion of a grand inferno to mask her escape so that she can survive to do it all over again in a year’s time. While this process is painful, demoralizing, and traumatic, Gilene sees it as her sacred duty to perform, as it means sparing the other young women in her village a horrifying fate.

But this year, she did not anticipate Azarion. For close to a decade, he has been forced to fight in the brutal arenas to satiate his empress’s bloodlust, becoming a gladiator of much renown. And for some reason, he can see through Gilene’s illusions. Using her as a key to his escape, Azarion kidnaps Gilene after the ceremony, threatening to expose her secret if she doesn’t accompany him back to his village and help him reclaim his birthright. Trusting in his people’s reverence for fire witches, he hopes that Gilene’s support would allow him to challenge for the role of clan head, a position that was his before a traitorous cousin sold him into slavery. Thinking of Beroe and her own family, Gilene has no choice but to do what he says, realizing that the sooner Azarion can get his revenge, the sooner she can return home and prevent more death. What she didn’t foresee, however, was how the idea of home would also change for her.

I’ll admit it. There’s a lot of fantasy romance fiction out there that makes me want to cringe, tear my hair out with frustration, or roll my eyes at the cheesiness of it all. Apparently though, I’ve just been reading all the wrong books. Phoenix Unbound is proof that good writing can make all the difference. Building a believable, complex romance is an art, and too many authors try to rush the process without first establishing a connection between the characters. It is a step that becomes even more critical when considering relationships like the one between Gilene and Azarion. Hate-to-love romances are immensely popular, but I find they also get bungled a lot in many books, mainly because timing and rhythm have to be just right. Happily, Draven doesn’t miss a beat. Readers already know Gilene and Azarion will fall in love, but the narrative makes them (and us) work for it, drawing out their courtship and delaying the gratification until the two characters are emotionally invested in each other, and we’re emotionally invested in them.

This does mean the romance takes longer to develop, but it’s worth it, and I think the results speak for themselves. Far from making me want to cringe (or tear my hair out, or roll my eyes) the final scene in the book almost moved me to tears because it was so perfect and beautiful. Plus, I can’t say the measured pacing of the romance really bothered me at all, since there was so much else going on in the story to occupy my attention. Despite some of the more well-trodden tropes, there are many other aspects of the book that feel genuine and unique, like the personalities of the characters, both major and minor. Each person comes across as real and lived-in, with distinct attitudes, motivations, strengths and flaws. Draven also brings her Fallen Empire world to life with lushly described details and stunning imagery, instilling feeling into her environments which provides an extra emotional layer to the events and character interactions playing out on the page.

My point is, Phoenix Unbound isn’t simply about a love story. It is the full package. Grace Draven has been working hard at her craft, and it shows. This book is full of beautiful and tragic moments, scenes of both ferocious violence and intense passion. The exquisite slow-burning romance between Gilene and Azarion is balanced with outstanding characterization and world-building, fueling my enthusiasm and interest in the story as its developments unfolded. Fantasy romance authors and readers take note, because this is the way it should be done. This novel drew me in completely, and I hope we’ll be seeing more from this universe.
Profile Image for Erika ♥OwlwaysReading♥.
363 reviews147 followers
December 31, 2019
❣️❤️❣️$1.99 RN (12/30/19) on Amazon Kindle❣️❤️❣️

Grace Draven…

… What an incredible storyteller!!! Packed with brilliant world building, character development, and growth. The sacrifices, betrayal, brooding glances, antihero, and unexpected plot-turns had me glued to my Kindle.

I didn’t know if she was going to be able to pull it off. I really didn’t. This roller coaster was unexpected and full of adventure! I’ll admit, I wasn’t in love with the characters right off the bat. Both were so flawed and so tortured. I honestly didn’t want them to be together, or at least I wasn’t all that excited about the prospect. But by the end, I wanted more! MORE! MORE! MOOORREEEE!!!

Radiance Radiance (Wraith Kings, #1) by Grace Draven , by Grace Draven, is in my top 5 favorite books of all time. Her writing and world building is incredibly well researched and thought-out. This beautiful story had a mash-up of gladiators, sacrificial victims, draga, gods, otherworldly creatures, barrows, wights, and much more.

Onto the main characters…
Heroine = Gilene of Beroe
She is described as being slim with long legs, dark eyes, and brown hair that shines with red highlights in the sun. She isn’t the most beautiful women, but what she lacks in beauty she makes up for with courage and a strong will to survive. I admired her sense of duty/loyalty to her family and village. I’m not going to give too much away, but at about 80% I wanted her to be an oath breaker! UGH!

Hero = Azarion, Son of Iruadis Ataman and Saurke of the Kestrel clan.
He is your typical gorgeous hunk of muscle: green eyes, high cheekbones, wide shoulders, buff arms, and strong legs. I did NOT like him at first. Was he an interesting tortured character, YES. Did I want him with our heroine, NO. He used her! Took her as his captive to benefit himself without any regard for her. Initially there was no remorse, only a single-minded need to attain his own ambitions. Azarion is 100% antihero. Be warned!

But don’t worry. At around 77% I was 100% onboard the Azarion train. Yup! He won me over (even before that too). And that’s one of the things I loved about this story. Some of the best H’s start out as villians or anti-heros and turn into these incredible, swoon worth, delicious men. Am I right?

“I’m a greedy man. I want all of you, heart, soul, and body. You already have all that I am. It seems only fair.”

IMO, this is not your typical enemies-to-lover’s romance book. No cliché’s here. There was no insta-lust between these two. A hefty dose of derision, yes, but neither wanted to jump the other’s bones on first sight. Very different than you typical enemies-to-lover’s book where the H and h loath yet lust for each other.

No one would ever claim that this is a copy and past story with different names and worn out dialogue. This wonderfully rich historical/fantasy romance tale is spellbinding, and will stay uniquely singular within the recesses of your mind. With books like Radiance Radiance (Wraith Kings, #1) by Grace Draven , Entreat Me Entreat Me by Grace Draven , and Master of Crows Master of Crows (Master of Crows, #1) by Grace Draven , what else could we expect from Grace Draven. I am currently wishing, praying, and hoping that she will at least write a sequel to this wonderful tale for there are some (maybe just one) loose ends that need to be killed.

Overall Rating → 5 “You are mine. I am yours.” STARS
Price is Right? → YES ($4.99 on Amazon)
Cheating? →
Warning →
Profile Image for Angela.
3,198 reviews368 followers
May 31, 2019
**Content and Trigger Warnings** (rape, assault, slavery, murder, torture, gore, and violence)

The threat of rape, and then the actual torture and rape, at the beginning of this book - of both the main characters - really put me off. It took me a long time to get past it enough to actually continue reading. I'm not sure why it hit me so hard here, in this book. So many books use it. So many books use it and then forget it was ever a problem. It's exhausting. As if being burned alive, or being a slave gladiator isn't bad enough....there's rape on top of it.

Once I got past that, it was much easier to get into and enjoy the story. The world is fascinating. Though there is an evil Empire to fight, the main battles are much more personal and close to the characters. This really drew me into their story.

We first meet Gilene as she's being taken from her village to become a Flower of Spring. The capital city burns many women each year as tribute.What the Empire doesn't know is that Gilene has power over fire, and that she's been her village's tribute for the last several years. Every year she goes under illusion of someone else, so that no one in her village has to die. She's as much a prisoner of her village as she is a victim of the Empire. She can go to be raped and burned year after year, or they can kill her family.

Despite these pretty horrific facts of her life, Gilene is both loyal to her family, kind to those she can be, and smart. When everything changes for her she doesn't bemoan her fate, she figures the odds, calculates the best path, and chooses. This is what happens when she meets the Gladiator Prime.

Azarion has been a gladiator in the city, a slave, for the last 10 years. He is the best they have. His skill at killing has captivated this blood-thirsty city, and their blood-thirsty Empress. Azarion's torture occurs in the pit and in the Empress' bed. But Azarion doesn't give up, doesn't forget that he has a people to go back to. And when he sees a Flower of Spring, the women to be burned on the pyre that he's sure he's seen in years past, he knows this is the time to act.

I thought I would have issues with the power-imbalance between Azarion and Gilene. He threatens her family, her village, and herself to get her to cooperate with his plan. He takes her prisoner and orders her to do many things. In his mind he's doing what needs to be done to get back to his family and to avenge the wrongs done to him. He knows he'll never truly hurt her, knows that he's bluffing. But she doesn't.

What I enjoyed a lot is that Gilene doesn't just bow under the pressure Azarion presents. She challenges him and the status-quo consistently. She never lets him forget that she's not there willingly. That she has no reason to trust him. And though it takes him a while to understand this, when he does it's beautiful.

Regardless of this power imbalance, there is a consistent emphasis in this book on consent. Sometimes it's more subtle than others, but it's always there.

When I finished the book and began to think of what I would write in my review, examining Gilene and Azarion's relationship specifically, I began to think about Stockholm Syndrome. I think that someone else could probably better argue why this is or isn't that, but I'll say that it never felt squicky or wrong to me. The development of their romance was organic. Occurring only when the power imbalance had been resolved.

I appreciated so much that Azarion came to see her as something more because of her inner strength, her choices, and who she was as a person. It all made her more beautiful to him. Inside and out.

Gilene developed so much, but never beyond who she was. She gained the strength to become - on the outside - who she always was on the inside.

A lot of time is spent on Azaraion's and Gilene's separate but intertwined journeys. Their romance is a slow burn that captivated my romantic heart . I couldn't get back to them quickly enough when they were separated in the last third of the book. That part of the story dragged a bit for me.

Despite a rocky start - because of my own personal triggers - I really enjoyed this book. Grace Draven is definitely becoming one of my go-to authors for fantasy romance.
Profile Image for Douglas Meeks.
863 reviews232 followers
September 21, 2018
I was not sure exactly what to expect from this new series from Grace Draven since I am hopelessly addicted to her “Wraith Kings” series but I did not want to see that story rehashed into another series but since I have pretty much considered almost everything she has written in the 5 Star area I was expecting a lot so I should not have worried, totally different story and setting.

Can’t say I was disappointed since we have somewhat of a basic epic fantasy type of a plot where we have a couple that meets under somewhat horrific circumstances and proceeds along a line of escape while rolling around in a love/hate relationship (mostly hate for at least a third of the book) but a gripping story emerges as we go along and as with most epic fantasy type stories it is detailed in the telling. This story does not allow you to go along with some fairy tale idea that bad things never happen to good people, there are some bad times and horrible people which give it a depth of realism missing from many such books of this genre but it does make you crack an evil smile when payback comes.

We have old revenge plots, an evil empire, an even more evil Empress (seriously evil), some really hard decisions, a bit of old magic, impossible odds and so what more could you want? The thing that makes her writing a bit more than others, a believable romance that has no “insta-love” involved that many writers use to save pages or because it is hard to do, this story makes it look obvious. Her forte IMHO in this genre is her ability to weave the romance into the body of her stories and slowly make it a main component and not a “plug in some romance and sex here” type of formulaic writing style.

I won’t detail the plot, there are some surprises and both of our couple are pretty hard headed and stubborn but also feel they have a great responsibility (which in the case of our heroine is convoluted and no easy choice in any direction). I love the way this plays out and the ending was thankfully pretty much no cliffhanger and if not for a couple of dangling threads you would think it was the end of the story which made me love it even more.

I had to think about this story for a long time to decide the rating I would give it because I loved the ending so much but at the same time it was well into the second half of the book before it became a “can’t put it down” story so 4 Stars and assuming there is a 5 star book or 2 coming in this series.
Profile Image for Stacey.
1,446 reviews1,156 followers
July 19, 2020
My heart is pounding...

Phoenix Unbound was so bloody good. The storyline was captivating, the characters original and I was emotionally invested in seeing good conquer evil. Grace Draven is an extraordinary storyteller, and I'm convinced she can do no wrong... when it comes to writing Fantasy Romance.

There are parts of this story that are a little hard to take but it was never too much. Rape is used to control and punish both men and women. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with it too much and the one time we do, it wasn't overly descriptive. The worst part is the haunting memories that linger from the abuse.

While at first the relationship seems doomed between the hero and heroine, with time, we realise that the captor has become the captured. It's obvious that there is an attraction between the two, but even more obvious was that they needed to trust each other before they can have a relationship.

Phoenix Unbound was an action-packed adventure that kept my attention from start to finish. I can't wait to read more from this amazing author.

Profile Image for Mrinmayi.
155 reviews574 followers
June 23, 2020
This book reminded me of the ACOTAR series
Sans the cheap love triangle
And what if Feyre was less annoying and Stupid
And if Tamlin and Rhysand were the same people 😂

This book just wasn't for me
I did not enjoy the fantasy setting at all
Many things were not explained
Couldn't connect to the characters
Nor could I get their chemistry

Would recommend to SJM fans
Profile Image for jenny✨.
563 reviews804 followers
July 16, 2020


Grace Draven is without a doubt one of my favourite romance authors to walk the earth. If you’re ever in the mood for slow-burn, steamy romances and gorgeous storytelling, she will NEVER disappoint. Her fantasies are well-developed without being overly intricate, and as someone who finds it difficult to get into a hardcore high fantasy, I absolutely adore her world-building.

“What has the Empire made of us that we both kill innocents without hesitation?”

Azarion is the Empire's most revered gladiator, beautiful and terrifying in the brutality that's ensured his survival. Sold into slavery ten years ago by his traitor cousin, Azarion's only hope of making it back to his people—the Savatar nomads who ride horses across steppes and plains—lies with one woman: Gilene. For half a decade, this fire witch has borne torture, humiliation, and being burnt alive to spare the women of her village from this same fate. When Azarion abducts her and takes her to the vast lands and warm hearths of his people, her eyes are opened to a life beyond pain and sacrifice.

And together, well... let's just say they have the firepower (pun intended) to make an Empire go KABOOM.

Like Radiance, Phoenix Unbound is a story that holds fast even without the enthralling romance at its centre—a star-crossed romance between strong-willed characters with wrenching backstories. From the cruelly glorified violence of the gladiator arena—and empress's bedchambers—to the breathtaking expanse of the Savatar steppes, I was CAPTIVATED, y'all.

Profile Image for ❤️Emma Book Lover ❤️.
470 reviews262 followers
January 28, 2021
3.5 stars

A beautifully written fantasy romance with a captivating storyline.
After religiously watching Spartacus tv show and heard this book is the story of a Gladiator slave and a woman bound by duty I knew this read is a must. I had really high expectations considering the other book I ve read by this author - Radiance (Wraith Kings, #1) by Grace Draven - is a 5 stars rating, they were met and also not.

As I said the storyline is captivating and the world building enchanting, with lands mostly ruled by the ruthless Empire, people enslaved, savage rituals, pit fights with gladiators, fire witches , demons , spirits and many more.
All of the above is right up my alley and I loved every word of it, but in my opinion this is what the book is mostly centered: world building and action, while I wanted the center of attention to be the love story, which was not.
For a romance reader that craves her romance in the books she reads, it felt a bit disappointing. The relationship between Gilene and Azarion is an enemies to lovers one and very slow burn. I would have loved more banter, more scenes together as a "couple". I didn't understand why Gilene waited so long to be reunited with Azarion, it made no sense to me that she took her time until the circumstances made him come to her , especially when she knew he would have been devastated after their farewell.
The ending also very unsatisfying.

* Trigger: rape ( the H is abused for 10 years during his slavery), degradation, violence.
Profile Image for Zero.
441 reviews20 followers
January 12, 2023
The Krael Empire is a harsh place. It conquers surrounding kingdoms, enslaves people as gladiators and prostitutes, and forces every town to provide young women to be used as human sacrifices in the Rites of Spring.

In one town in the Empire, a woman of every generation is born with the ability to wield fire and illusion. They cannot be harmed by fire, but using their magic has a painful price. They go as a sacrifice for the Rites every year, using their illusion to escape after. Gilene is now the village's sacrifice.

Azarion was in line to be the chief of his clan, when his power-hungry cousin sold him as a slave to the Krael Empire. For the last 10 years he has fought successfully as a gladiator. Just before the Rites, he sees through Gilene's illusion and blackmails her into helping him.

I liked both main characters, although it took a while for me to warm up to them. In the beginning, they are both so single-minded in their goals that I didn't really care about them. But as the book goes on, they grow to respect and like each other and it's really sweet.

I tried reading this a few years ago, but lost interest a quarter of the way through. I'm glad that I tried it again though, because I really enjoyed it this time. I'll definitely read more of the series.

Just a warning, this book has graphic violence, including sexual assault. Most of the violence occurs in the very beginning of the book, but the characters continue to be troubled by their experiences.
Profile Image for Mimi.
694 reviews191 followers
November 29, 2018
2.5 stars

Grace Draven really likes to write slow-burning romances.

First 10%: good
Last 10%: also good
Middle 80%: a real slog

Seriously, I almost didn't make it through, and I had just recently read all three books in the Blackthorn & Grim* trilogy by Juliet Marillier back-to-back, which was a real slog of a different stripe.

But the ending more or less made up for the slowness, so I suppose it wasn't all that bad. Just a really long and really boring read that could have been interesting with more action and less focus on a day in the life of a nomadic clan.

*my personal measuring stick for all things slow-burning (and also for all things slow and burning)
Profile Image for Emma.
122 reviews93 followers
December 26, 2018
Loved it. GD has a way with words. Her storytelling is beautiful and the world building was perfect, but the way she created those characters was just brilliant, they were well developed. Their backstory, the things they believed in and their struggles made them real people with extraordinary personalities.

There's a few things I would've changed. Like giving more space to the antagonists. Specially in the first half of the second part, when the pace got a bit slow. I wanted the cousin to do something evil, but he just waited for the combat. So, yes, the villains were underdeveloped. However, the story was amazing, and absolutely worth reading.
Profile Image for Sophie "Beware Of The Reader".
1,292 reviews341 followers
October 6, 2018
“The two of them were bound by a common past of subjugation and a resolve to overcome the damage it wrought.”


4 solid stars


I think this first quote is the best way to symbolize Azarion and Gilene’s relationship as well as give you a taste of Grace Draven beautiful yet not too flowery ‘s writing.

I had no idea this book was about to be published untill I saw its review on Mel’s blog. It was a one click as I adored Eidolon!

What I got was a solid, steady story about a very slow burn relationship.

Grace Draven didn’t make the romance the focal point of this story. As it probably is the setting of a series, I expect or rather need more of a romantic trope in the second book.

This was about two people who have been toys of a cruel empire. Most people are abused by this empire who does not care for its citizen but rather indulges its sovereigns. Among the rulers prevails the evil empress.

The whole purpose of the book is to escape the empire’s clutches, plot a revenge against the traitors and ultimately against the empire.

When Gilene meets Azarion it’s not insta love nor insta lust nor insta friendship. There may be some compassion as Gilene realizes Azarion is a pawn and goes through insufferable cruelty in the pit but also at the hands of the empress. She is chained to her fate, condemned to burn again and again to spare her village because of the empire’s sick amusement.

He is forced to fight and kill every day just to be abused and raped right after.

When Gilene tends to Azarion’s wounds she does it with care and empathy. Yet she resents Azarion for what he’ll force her to do.

Never in her life had Gilene a real choice, a chance to do what she wanted.

Azarion capturing her to help him get his revenge did nothing to endear him to Gilene’s eyes.

Yet as the story progresses and Gilene discovers not only someone courageous and manipulative but someone loyal, dedicated and true to his word her opinion will sweeten.

From unwilling ally she’ll come to really help Azarion in his endeavor and will wish for his success.

The pace of the story is steady. Not too slow to get boring, not too fast to overlook important details it lets Gilene and Azarion’s relationship unfurls progressively. You have action in the book and sometimes you’ll tremble when confronted with evil ghosts but you are not on a crazy ride either. Well yes, sometimes you ride hard as you are pursued but what I mean is there is a balance in everything in this book.

I loved that Grace Draven took the time and the care to give us details about this world and time. How you tend to wounds, how traders live, how nomads live and what they eat, forage etc.

Yet again this is just enough details to give life to this world and not too much to drown you.

I also loved that Grace Draven made the building of the relationship believable.

If you had been abducted, blackmailed to help your captor reach his goal, you would not fall into his arms like a lovesick teenager. No you would be cold, mistrusting yet forced to rely on him for your own safety in world where women are raped and enslaved.

It would take time to warm up to him.

It would take him defending you against ghosts and soldiers, him tending to your wounds and his family’s loving eyes to begin trusting him and care for him.
“What if I had fallen or couldn’t keep up?” “ I would have carried you.”

That’s what happened to Gilene.

Azarion was immediately awed by Gilene and it was understandable as his people worship the fire goddess Agna. She was agacin to his eyes and they were revered by his people.

But if Azarion admired Gilene he was above all else a very determined and practical man who knew that without the agacin his chance to reclaim his birth right were slim to non-existent.

If he kidnapped her and was determined to force her compliance he did it with remorse and regret.

Grace Draven portrayed strong but not flashy characters.

When I used the word “steady” in my introduction I had Gilene and Azarion in mind.

Gilene was a very courageous woman. Proud and dedicated to her mission. Not easily frightened yet not foolish either. She endured her suffering every year and paid a high price for her magic, wearing her scars with pride as it was a testimony to her sacrifice.
“Be still. Be silent. Some lust for beauty, others for fear. Don’t show them yours.“

She was a no-nonsense kind of heroine. Gilene cared for others yet usually kept them at arm’s length as no one had ever opened their heart to her. Even her own family did not really show love.
“No other woman in Beroe is safe from fire. It would be wrong and cowardly of me to let them burn when I can go in their place and survive. It doesn’t mean I have to like it because I’m willing to accept it.”

She was the perfect counterpart to Azarion.


Azarion is a hero in shades of grey. He had to become hardened by the years of torture. He had to bury deep what he went through each day to be able to survive and one day get his revenge.

Him abducting Gilene shows that her would do everything to reach his goal.

Strong, handsome, determined, loyal and smart are all adjectives describing Azarion.

Reading Phoenix Unbound was like drinking fine champagne: you don’t rush through it you savor your time.

So why not five stars? Because I feel the ending was lacking something. I would have loved some more pages about “after”. Yet I suspect this is the best choice as all will be developed in a second book. One missing star too because if I love slow burn this was more than slow burn. I want more romance. Once more I hope this comes in the second book.


Recommend it? Absolutely!
Have you read it? Or do you plan to read it now?
Thanks for reading!

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