The sequel to K. Arsenault Rivera’s acclaimed fantasy debut, The Phoenix Empress is a superlative example of what fantasy is capable of.
The restrained, visually evocative world building of The Tiger’s Daughter is continued here. Many of the animals witnessed in this series are unique combinations of the animals we see in our own landscapes, enriching Rivera’s fictional world and keeping the reader grounded. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is Rivera’s prose, and her willingness to question the reliability of one of her narrators. Shefali has been seeing ghosts since the first book, and not only does this give the reader the opportunity to enjoy Rivera’s grisly renderings of the afterlife, but it also complicates the marriage at the heart of the series.
Readers left Shizuka and Shefali essentially walking in opposite directions at the end of the previous book—Shizuka as newly-crowned empress, and her warrior lover Shefali facing physical and psychological trials typically only seen in science fiction and horror. Much of The Phoenix Empress explores the struggles of their growing relationship under the specter of PTSD and the stressors of their unique positions. Shizuka and Shefali’s transformed marriage is a fascinating through line, and Rivera is to be commended for building a relationship that needs work, instead of one that was perfected as soon as vows were exchanged. Separated for several years, Shizuka and Shefali must relearn their partnership and deal with the outside expectations of a very public marriage.
The Phoenix Empress is a tremendous achievement, and highly recommended.