Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my review in any way, and the thoughts expressed are my own.
A truly epic new fantasy world follows the struggle of the animages, people gifted with magic that allows them to communicate and control animals. Most importantly, they can bond with a phoenix to become a Phoenix Rider. These Riders are guardians that protect everyone, especially their fellow animages. But sixteen years ago, during the horrific Blood War, the war between two sister princesses ripped the land in two, destroyed every Rider and phoenix and left animages in chains.
Now we follow three young animages; Sev, a boy hiding his true nature amongst the soldiers that would enslave him; Tristan, a Phoenix Rider terrified of fire; Veronyka, a girl desperate to become a Rider, even if that means leaving her sister. Veronyka has always had her older sister, Val, even after their grandmother was killed in a riot. But Val is cruel and controlling (honestly, she’s a sadistic psycho) and when she finally pushes Veronyka too far, Veronyka leaves. Determined to become a Phoenix Rider just like her grandma and the heroes of legend, Veronyka will do anything, including discussing herself as a boy, Nyk, to join the remaining Riders.
The few Riders that survived retreated to a secluded mountain fortress and work towards rebuilding. Commander Cassian oversees them – a governor exiled by the Empire – and just so happens to be Tristan’s father. The poor boy struggles under the pressure of living up to his father’s expectations despite his incredible talent, skill and ranking as the best in his class. It’s never enough. And he can only imagine the terrible consequences of his secret becoming known.
Any animages within the Empire are treated as second-class citizens – blamed for the horrors of the war – the government charges every animage with extreme taxes or puts them in chains. To escape the persecution, the animages flee to Pyra, the kingdom created by one of the princesses in the traditional homeland of the animages. Sev, a war orphan, hides within the ranks of the army. He travels with his legion into Pyra along with their bondservants (animage slaves). When he’s caught by a bondservant, Sev is brought into the exact kind of dangers he was trying to avoid.
Tristan is happy to have a friend in Nyk, someone he can open up to, and vice versa. It’s heart-warming to see two people who have had to be guarded all their lives finally have a chance to let someone in. Their friendship, though rocky at first, is deep and understanding and Veronyka is thrilled to have her first friend. But she fears what he will think if her secret is revealed and her heart can’t bear to lose someone again. I loved their relationship, it wasn’t instantaneous but built over time, which forged it into something more profound. I couldn’t help but share Vernyka’s fear, I wanted them to remain friends despite their secrets.
Similarly, Sev becomes friends with a bondservant, Kade, who hates him just as much as Tristan hated Veronyka when they first met. Kade is particularly stony, continually hostile to Sev as they are forced to work together. Their relationship was unique from others, as they built on grudging respect, learn to understand each other and guard each other’s back. Kade stirs feelings within Sev, emotions he doesn’t understand and attempts to ignore. I loved their relationship, they seemed to be on opposite sides in the beginning, but as they worked together, they forged a friendship that was strong and true. It was great that Sev’s sexuality stirrings was a part of the story but not the main focus, especially since they had much bigger problems to worry about. (Plenty of books make the romance the main focus despite the fact that the characters are being attacked. They have bigger problems than romance!)
This world was incredibly well-developed, it was like stepping into a real world with hundreds of years of history, culture and magic. Pyraeans and animages had a unique culture that helped show their people to be hundeds of years old with dozens of traditions that they attempt to continue despite their persecution. In each chapter, you learn more about the history of the lands, the legends of the famous Riders and snippets of what happened between the two infamous sisters. The Pyraean language was beautiful, surprisingly simple and flowed so naturally. I loved this world so much – the author must have spent years developing it!
The oppressed and mistreated minority was a fantastic representation of what millions of people face every day. Plus, the ‘underdogs uniting to stand against the larger enemy with nothing but hope’ is always an inspiring story.
But that was only a part of this novel! There were numerous twists, turns and reveals which continued to surprise me. I loved this book, it became one of my favourites within the first five chapters! I give it 5/5 and am seriously desperate for the second book.
PS. I WANT TO BE AN ANIMAGE SO BAD!