The cover of Wake of the Phoenix first drew me in. The aesthetics and the description sounded like my precise brand of fantasy, particularly with the promise of some political turmoil, but in actuality, it was a cumbersome and frustrating read.
Wake of the Phoenix Has Incredible Worldbuilding, But Not Much Else
While Arkaen is the central protagonist, he is far from the most interesting or compelling character in Chelsea Harper’s novel. In fact, Arkaen is largely useless — as a character, a brother, and a general. He is essentially a heralded war hero turned do-nothing high lord, who lacks the tenacity to amount to what his people need as rumors of rebellion begin to swirl. The most interesting character associated with him is his established (and secret) lover Lasha, who is leagues more intriguing, but hardly utilized. Yes, this is the first book in the series, and perhaps Lasha will play a bigger role, but at what cost?
Lasha’s near-omniscient gift is shown and hinted at throughout the novel, but his magical abilities are never fully explained or given the kind of writing that the trite class struggles are given. Which is another area where the novel wavers in its quality. While the class struggle is expected and even good, the characters involved are poor caricatures of medieval-inspired serfdom and the downtrodden.
Niamsha is the sole lower class main character given her own chapters in Wake of the Phoenix and she is very nearly unlikable in her design. The way that the author represents the lower class through unbearable speech patterns, threats of rape, and murderous intent is… a choice. I felt absolutely nothing by the time that we arrived at her final beat in the story, which sets up the next installment in the series. She is designed as this potential ally for Arkaen, someone who can help him prevent the potential civil war threatening his city, but ultimately it just doesn’t feel meaningful.
In regards to Arkaen and Lasha’s relationship, it’s nice to see more queer representation in the fantasy genre, but it’s frustrating that the representation remains secretive and forbidden and underscored with snide homophobic remarks of “cocksucker” instead of treated with a modicum of respect like the romance typically find in the genre.
Despite my gripes with the actual characters that Chelsea Harper has created, I have to give her credit for worldbuilding. Fantasy worldbuilding is no easy feat and she has put in the work to create a realm as believable as Westeros. There’s politicking, scheming, and history that make you want to stay engaged with the story, despite the sluggish character plots.
I recognize that Wake of the Phoenix is the first installment in Harper’s Artifice of Power Saga, but the first in a series should not leave its readers feeling entirely unsatisfied. Some emotional and plot-driven closure would have been nice. As it stands, I’m not entirely certain if I will come back for the follow-up novel. Strong worldbuilding isn’t always enough.
Wake of the Phoenix is out September 28th, 2021.