The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera (Their Bright Ascendancy #2)
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 9, 2018
Summary: Since she was a child, the divine empress O Shizuka has believed she was an untouchable god. When her uncle, ruler of the Hokkaran Empire, sends her on a suicide mission as a leader of the Imperial Army, the horrors of war cause her to question everything she knows.
Thousands of miles away, the exiled and cursed warrior Barsalyya Shefali undergoes trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to O Shizuka.
As the distance between disgraced empress and blighted warrior narrows, a familiar demonic force grows closer to the heart of the empire. Will the two fallen warriors be able to protect their home?
My Rating: ★★★★☆ ½
My Thoughts: The Phoenix Empress expands on the world of Hokkaro and delves deeper into a period of empress Shizuka’s past! Exquisite writing, action, adventure, and a plot that uncovers more about the world you thought you knew, Arsenault Rivera’s latest book, is a brilliantly explored sequel!
If you were to ask me what my most memorable historical/epic fantasy books are in recent years, I wouldn’t hesitate to say: The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera!
When I turned the very last page of Tiger, I was left emotionally drained, but in a good way. I fell in love with both Shizuka and Shefali–their lives, complexities, and the beautiful friendship + relationship they formed! From the moment I started The Phoenix Empress, it was like returning home.
I’ll be honest, because I’d been so captivated by The Tiger’s Daughter, I did put off reading Phoenix because I just wasn’t prepared to get back to it right away during release! However, I’m glad I didn’t because after that ending (WOW!) I don’t have to wait as long for The Warrior Moon! 😭💖❤
Set in the Hokkaran Empire, this series follows Qorin warrior Barsalai Shefali and divine empress-to-be O-Shizuka. Since birth their fates have been destined to remain tied together. Over the course of story, Shefali recounts her childhood with Shizuka through letters as they grew up together, became the best of friends, and learned more about the feelings they have for one another.
From the elegant writing style, to the way Arsenault Rivera crafts her characters through the eyes of Shefali, brings everyone and everything in this world to life!
What I loved about The Tiger’s Daughter was seeing how it ended on such a happy note with them finally seeing each other again after an 8-year separation.
However when The Phoenix Empress begins, we learn their reunion is short-lived as Shizuka is busy with politics, meetings, and other important duties as empress and her time with Shefali is constantly being cut short.
While both books have their dark and impactful moments, The Phoenix Empress definitely showcases a more grounded darkness as Shizuka recounts the depression and change she underwent with Shefali’s forced dismissal.
What I love about this series so much is not only the attention to detail that lends itself to the characters and world, but also the symbolism and parallels that I uncovered even more as I read Phoenix!
From plum blossoms, Shizuka being the storyteller this time around, how Shizuka loses her tears, and the backstory as to why Shizuka can barley look into the reflection of water anymore, these were the kinds of details I picked up on while reading that lent so much meaning to the story in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Shizuka however is not exactly the same as we or Shefali remember her in book 1! Still recovering from loneliness and the trials of war, there are ghosts that Shizuka calls to the surface that have haunted her during the time of Shefali’s absence.
The Phoenix Empress explores the effects of war, both internally and externally as Shizuka is transformed from confident empress to an empress now led astray by her lost love. But in Shefali’s absence, she now uses her loss for the time being to transform Hokkaro into a more united country.
From working in a Kyuuzen Temple to banding together a Xianese army to fight against the blackblood demons, and taking up the role as a soldier, Shizuka learns a lot more about her country and its people.
I would definitely say that Shizuka’s journey and travels during the war and alongside the Xianese were some of my favorite sections to read about!
Though there are so many of Shizuka’s scenes and moments I loved throughout Phoenix, if I had to pick a favorite I’d have to say that mine was when she connected with her ability to raise flowers and regrew The Wall Of Flowers! The descriptions to her connection with the world around her and just the ethereal presence I felt while reading it made it one of the many memorable scenes of Shizuka’s time in the army!
Shizuka has this light inside of her that I could sense with every chapter and new journey she was headed on! Even in the face of difficult trials, she pushed on and never gave up! Though there were many moments that caused her pain, she knew there was nothing worse than not being with Shefali and that pushed her to change herself and her world!
As with The Tiger’s Daughter, the novel jumps between the past and the present. Though this time instead of letters, its Shizuka telling Shefali stories of what happened during her absence.
In the present, not only does Shefali see how Shizuka is still recovering, but she’s also attempting to fight the demon that has slowly begun to take her over and learns the devastating news that she may only have months to live.
This sequel was interesting in a lot of ways, because with The Tiger’s Daughter we’re following Shizuka & Shefali’s lives literally starting at their births to their late 20’s. However, in Phoenix we’re following mainly Shizuka, this time through a set period of her life and why it left her such a changed person.
As with The Tiger’s Daughter, Arsenault Rivera’s writing is not only beautiful and descriptive, but also so poetic! Her writing is styled in a way where your left knowing so much about the setting, culture, character’s lives, and vastness of the story with each line.
While there were so many I loved, here were some of my favorite lines that I found throughout reading Phoenix:
“Letters are only paper. They may tear or fall apart or burn or eighty other things. Words can live forever, if we give them a voice…” (37).
“The most honorable thing in the world is to safeguard others…” (277).
“I do not consider the impossibility of a thing before I resolve myself to do it…” (354).
We get to know even more about the different lands across Hokkaaro such as Shiseiki and especially Xian-Lai! Through Shizuka’s efforts to grant countries their freedom from years of Hokkaran rule, we get to see even more depth to the history and culture of these vast countries.
Though Shizuka isn’t with Shefali for some time, we learn that Shizuka had been living in Xian-Lai with a fellow empress and learned about a long-lost cousin. I loved them so much, not only were they such deeply explored characters, but also as with Tiger, we see a vast array of powerful and inspiring female characters!
From Boazhai (Xian-Lai’s empress), Shizuka’s cousins Sakura & Daishi and general Xianyu (Baozhai’s older sister)–to of course Shefali & Shizuka themselves, I love the complexities, different dynamics and strengths that are seen among this cast of female characters! They are each unique, captivating, and inspiring in their own ways!
Since Tiger, we’ve known that it was Kenshiro who had let word out that Shizuka and Shefali we’re together, forcing the cruel emperor to separate them. However, since then we’ve seen how Shizuka has come to forgive him and I loved seeing how much these characters: Kenshiro, Baozhai (whose his wife), Sakura, Daishi, become one huge family alongside Shizuka & Shefali when they uncover more about the lore of their world, the monsters that still lurk, and a looming battle with a god that they still have much to learn about!
Though its slowly woven into the story and a lot more present nearing the last 1/4, I loved the expansion on the mythology and lore of the gods and how I see it playing such a crucial part in book 3, The Warrior Moon!
A mysterious chapter under the name of The Eternal King, uncovers that this god is the one who’s possibly been invading Shefali’s mind under the name of The Scholar since the start of the book! After getting a bit of backstory and how he can literally change the essence of who a person is & shape it into whatever he wants–I’m so interested to see how this is developed (but also a little worried for Shefali).
I also loved this discussion of gods explored even more when throughout this book we’ve seen that Shizuka’s claims of her & Shefali being gods wasn’t so far-fetched after all. It turns out there is a cycle of deities that rise out of chaos and live on through a destined group of people. This reveal was probably one of the most surprising elements of the book, but I loved how this led the cast to use it to their advantage and formulate a better plan at trying to save their world.
It seems there’s a looming war on the horizon and I can’t wait to see how my 2 brilliant warriors Shefali & Shizuka team up to take down the Eternal King! *Spoiler– I was not expecting him to be an ancient emperor! I’m interested to see where this is headed in book 3!
As with Shefali, we learn more here & there about the infection running through her. Though its something she keeps a lot to herself throughout the book, I loved reading about her development between her and her brother–finding that common ground again to talk to one another! I also loved learning more about her niece Baoyi!!
Probably another one of the most heartbreaking moments of this book aside from following Shizuka’s loneliness, was the fact that since her return Shefali hadn’t yet seen her mother!
Knowing she wanted to reconnect with Shizuka and spend time with her, I cried when she received a letter from her mother stating how proud she was of her and that they would meet again soon!
As mentioned above, though the main narrator changed for this book, I loved that no matter what I still felt a connection to the world! From the lush nature descriptions to the many people Shizuka meets along her journey, and the way more information is uncovered about the land of Hokkaro.
For me personally, I did find the pacing to be slower than Tiger and am surprised it took me practically a month to read this sequel, considering I’d gotten through Tiger in just a couple days. Though, I think that’s due to the difference in writing-style between Shefali and Shizuka, so it took me a little longer to get through this book!
Above all though, I really loved this book a lot! The Phoenix Empress‘s plot plays a lot with time and through that, we see this wonderfully executed timeline that lends a new perspective to the empress and world we thought we knew! Though Shefali & Shizuka especially, shows so much vulnerability in this novel, seeing her growth and the family that’s formed between her & many other characters has definitely got me ready to see where their journey is headed in their Ascendancy!
The Phoenix Empress is an epic continuation to a brilliant fantasy series! This unforgettable sequel expands even more on the world of The Tiger’s Daughter than you first expect! Powerful and dynamic female characters, expansive lore and world-building, politics, action, adventure, and so much more, make The Phoenix Empress a unique and impactful sequel! The wait for The Warrior Moon will be tough, but so worth it!