Series: Fallen Empire #1
Published by Ace Books on September 25, 2018
I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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A woman with power over fire and illusion and an enslaved son of a chieftain battle a corrupt empire in this powerful and deeply emotional romantic fantasy from the USA Today bestselling author of Radiance.
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.
An enjoyable tale of survival and love.
While Phoenix Unbound contained its own interesting world building, there is no question that inspiration was taken from the worst of the Roman Empire with emphasis on slavery, rape, sacrifices and blood sports.
TRIGGER WARNING: While it is not graphically violent, both hero and heroine are subjected to rape.
Each Spring the Empire makes an offering to their Gods by sacrificing young women in the Colosseum. They collect a female–old, young, married, mother, it doesn’t matter–from each village in the Empire and they are tied together in a mass pit and burned alive. As if this isn’t tormenting enough, they spend their last night on earth being tossed to the gladiators to be raped before their die.
Every generation, a fire witch is born in the village of Beroe. This power does not descend through one family. It is a random occurrence, but this fire witch takes on the burden of the sacrifice. They not only have the ability to control fire and not burn, but they have the ability to cast illusions. Therefore, she can assume a different appearance each year to fool the Empire. Gilene was born with these abilities and for the last few years, she has sacrified herself for the good of her family and her village. Enduring the rape and the backlash of using that much fire magic at one time. Gilene knows that this is her burden in life, to suffer the sacrifice year after year. She knows she will never marry, who would have her as their wife? The scarring from the burns will increase each year until the next fire witch is old enough to take on the burden, and Gilene will die young, scarred and alone.
This year is different because Gilene is confronted by the Gladius Prime. Azarion can see through Gilene’s illusion magic. He noticed her among the women last year and realized he had seen her the prior year. He knows what Gilene is. Azarion’s people worship the Goddess of Fire, Agna, and her handmaidens who harness fire. He knows that Gilene is an agacin and he needs her illusion magic to help him escape his cage and finally return to his people.
Gilene isn’t the only one to suffer humiliation and pain at the hands of the Empire. For ten years, Azarion has fought as the gladiator in the Empire’s games and as a champion for most of that time he has been forced to service the sadistic Empress. She likes pain as much as pleasure and Azarion would rather fight in the pits than gratify the Empress’s lusts. Azarion was the son of the clan chief who was betrayed by a cousin who beat him unconscious and sold him as a slave to the Empire. He has spent the last year hoping and praying that the fire witch would return again this year, and planning how he would use her to escape.
Azarion blackmails Gilene to help him escape. While she believes her assistance ends when she opens his door, Azarion knows that he will need to backing of the agacin to reclaim his birthright and he kidnaps Gilene after making his escape.
Once freed Gilene and Azarion have to outrun the Empire. Gilene is unhappy being forced into fleeing, but she also knows that if she is caught with Azarion, the Empire won’t bother themselves with the fact that the was abducted. She will quickly go from sacrifice to slave in the Empire and won’t be able to help her village. At least Azarion has promised to return her to her people once she helps him.
As they travel, we get a glimpse of some of Azarion’s guilt for blackmailing a woman who has spent her life being blackmailed by her village (if she doesn’t burn for them, her family members will be sent for the next sacrifices). Gilene doesn’t want to acknowledge that her kidnapper and blackmailer has any good points but once they arrive at his village, she at first begrudingly admits he has good points and comes to admit that even thought she was dragged there, Azarion’s people need him and what a great leader he will be. Yet, when the declares that his first act as chief would be to march his people against the heart of the Empire, Gilene isn’t sure if he is a madman or a brilliant strategist.
I liked how Azarion’s village life was presented and how they, at first grudgingly, acknowledge Gilene and come to cheer her as one of their own, once her fire magic returned and she was able to prove herself as a true agacin.
Their trip from the center of the Empire to the wild plains where Azarion’s village lies was quite an adventure and I like that there was no insta-love. Gilene’s strength and dedication to her people gains Azarion’s regard a lot quicker than Azarion was able to win over Gilene’s, this was a story where love was slowly build upon respect and admiration of character. By the end Gilene was torn between her duty to her family and her love for Azarion and his people.
I got a little nervous about three-quarters into the story since this was book 1 of a series, I was afraid we would be left hanging, but a check of the author’s website shows that this will be a trilogy featuring three different women.
I kept getting interupted so it took me awhile to get through it, but I had it downloaded everywhere and I would even read a few pages on my phone when I could. I definitely enjoyed this story.
“Tell them not to run. Tell them to stay here. Together. To get off their horses and blindfold them with whatever they have.”
Saruke’s gasped. “Are you mad?”
“Just do it. Tell them the agacin demands it.”
She didn’t wait to hear whether Saruke followed her instructions, but raced back to where she had doused the cooking fire. Voices argued behind her. She ignored them. All her attention centered on the pile of ash, and the tiny red spark that still glowed at its perimeter. No bigger than a bead, it had escaped the drowning from turnip water and gleamed bright and hot amid a bed of wet ash.
She crouched, her hand outstretched, palm down. The steppe, the women protesting her command, the steady drum of hoofbeats drawing closer–all faded as she stared at the jewel of hot coal and turned inward to listen to her magic.
The red thread was a stream now, still thin but unbroken. It spilled from the once empty well inside her, flowing through her veins in a steady current. Eager, waiting.
Fire magic was a harsh and unpredictable mistress, quick to turn on its wielder if not held in check by a firm hand. Gilene’s life had been defined by controlling her birthright and suffering the consequences when she didn’t. And now she’d be tested again, not by Savatar fire witches who demanded she prove her magic, but by Saiga warriors bent on raiding.
The tiny coal glowed hotter, brighter, bigger, until it surged up in a slender column of flame no bigger than a young willlow branch. Unlike the god-fire of the Veil, it owed no allegiance to the Savatar and would readily burn any of them except the immune agacins. While the priestesses refused to recognize Gilene as one of theirs, this small flame obeyed its mistress. It shot through the space between her fingers, crackling in a merry dance that should have blisterred her skin. Instead, more flames cascaded over her hand with a lover’s touch, licking along her wrist and forearm, leaving flesh and clothing unharmed.
Gilene swept her arm in a graceful arc and whipped the fire across the ground where it devoured the damp grasses in a shower of sparks and smoke that formed a circle around the now silent women and children. They watched her, eyes wide as she bent the fire to her will, feeding its hunger with the long grass, controlling its ravenous appetite with the magic she spun out in carefully measured strands.
The flames crackled low and close to the ground, the only hint of their presence to the approaching horsemen the telltale veils of smoke rising into the air. Gilene took her eyes off the fire long enough to find Saruke. “Tell them if they haven’t yet blindfolded their horses to do so now or they’ll lose them.”
Saruke’s rapid Savat broke the frozen tension, and more shuffling and horse snorts filled the air as the last of the horses had their eyes covered by torn bits of blankets, shawls, and the hems of tunics.
A trickle of sweat tickled the length of Gilene’s back as the Saiga riders closed the distance, their casual pace speeding up until they hit full gallop. The whistling twang of an arrow loosed pierced the air, fired from the bow of one of the Kestrel scouts standing guard outside the fire circle. All six archers raised their shields as a thin volley of return fire spilled around them, arrows embedding in the ground around them and in the shields they held.
“A little closer,” Gilene muttered. “Just a little closer.” Patience, she reminded herself. Patience ruled fire. Not strength, no speed, and definitely not impulse.
The Saiga horsemen were almost on top of the defending archers when Filene drew hardest on her magic. Were her power fully returned, the flames shooting up from the circle woud have towered over them nearly as high as the Veil. Instead they created a wall only knee-high. Undetered, Gilene incanted an illusion spell, and the flames exploded upward with the deep roar of an ancient draga’s bellow.
On both sides, people cried out and horses whinnied as she shaped the flame into a colossal monstrosity of claws and teeth and glowing yellow eyes straight out of a Kraelian Book of Nightmares. The thing arched back before cannoning forward, its monstrous jaws snapping on a fiery bellow that sent the terrified horses of the equally terrified Saiga screaming and bucking as they fought their riders’ control and lunged away from the horror threatening to either devour or burn them.
Gilene pitied the Kestrel archers who cried out their terror and struggled to control their own maddened mounts, but there was nothing she could do for them. Outside the circle, all had to believe that an agacin of immense power had just raised a fire demon or some monster of equal horror and hurled it at them.
She fanned both flame and illusion with her magic until the last Saiga rider disappeared over the ridges, some now riding pillion with a compatriot, while their riderless horses bolted in the same direction, reins snapping behind them like angry vipers.