A Phoenix First Must Burn: a review

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[image description: blog banner with illustration from Ashe Samuels’s cover of A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN edited by Patrice Caldwell in the background; in the foreground, the title “A Phoenix First Must Burn: A review in fuchsia at the top, a book with the cover of the anthology in the middle, and @boricuareads in white at the bottom]

Description:

Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.

With stories by: Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Patrice Caldwell, Dhonielle Clayton, J. Marcelle Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, L. L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.

Evoking Beyoncé’s Lemonade for a teen audience, these authors who are truly Octavia Butler’s heirs, have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. A Phoenix First Must Burn will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A Phoenix First Must Burn shine brightly. You will never forget them.

Review:

A Phoenix First Must Burn is a short story collection of speculative Young Adult fiction centered around “Black Girl Magic,” as most of the marketing and even cover boast. Inside, you’ll find one of the queerest, gender-defying, and greatest celebration of Blackness and the legacy of one of the grandest in speculative fiction: Octavia Butler. The collection runs the gamut between science fiction, mythological retelling, and fantasy, all handpicked by ex-Disney-Hyperion editor and now-literary agent Patrice Caldwell. Before I begin my critique, a disclaimer: I am not Black. Therefore, take my critique with a grain of salt; I’d rather you read from a Black reader’s perspective than mine. I’m not going to talk a lot about the contents of each story and whether their representation was accurate, because it’s not my place. Rather, I’ll be touching on the way the stories impacted me as a reader and what worked or didn’t in terms of the writing format.

Short stories are difficult to write. A speculative short story is even harder to write, since you need to cram a bit of worldbuilding as well as the character(s) and I guess plot into a format that doesn’t allow lengthiness. This format should leave the reader feeling like they need more out of the writing and still resonate. Sometimes, those short stories merely feel superficial. The writings in this collection make it into a solid anthology, but I would rather explain which ones help it keep its steady legs and which ones are its weak points:

When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb – Amerie: We have an alien invasion to start out the anthology, and it was one of the most engaging stories in it. It’s incredibly sci-fi, and the story gravitates around a girl interrogating an alien and trying to get them to explain why they invaded Earth. There’s some questionable physics involved (and, perhaps, queer MCs?), but the story still left me wanting more, not just from the story but from the author: I need a novel from Amerie. (4.5/5 stars)
Gilded – Elizabeth Acevedo: All of Elizabeth’s writing is, indeed, gold. Following an enslaved girl in what is now the Dominican Republic, who may or may not have magical powers. It urges the reader to consider what freedom means and who applies its meaning and its context. (5/5 stars)
Wherein Abigail Firlds Recalls Her First Death, and, Subsequently, Her Best Life – Rebecca Roanhorse: This story reads as a western mixed with (perhaps?) some Native mythology, but it was hard to understand its intention (this is where I remind you I am not Black, and I am not affiliated to an Indigenous Nation). The ending didn’t make much sense and felt anticlimactic. But sure, there are sapphic girls. (3.5/5 stars)
The Rules of the Land – Alaya Dawn Johnson: Johnson’s story follows a girl who’s the descendant of powerful sea creatures (sea cow mermaids!) and there are family secrets. That’s my pitch. (4/5 stars)
A Hagiography of Starlight – Somaiya Daud: I am a Big Fan of flowery, lyrical prose, and Daud delivered that in this story of a dancer who devotes her life to a being (or, god) who will only answer to her. I read it as a young girl being groomed by a powerful and older being into giving him part of her essence. He enmeshes himself into her being in return, leaving the reader gasping for more of this story. (4.5/5 stars)
Melie – Justina Ireland: If you’re a fan of Black Hermione Granger, I have a feeling you’ll love Melie, because she is giving me competence and bravery and wit, all while uncovering a massive conspiracy in her kingdom and entertaining a dragon (sort of). (4.5/5 stars)
The Goddess Provides – L.L. McKinney: If Ireland’s story served Hermione Granger realness, this one brought the fire one could associate with Daenerys Targeryen. In such a short format, McKinney packed a punch or two in her plot twists, leaving me actually shocked. This is another story I’d like to see developed into a high fantasy novel. (4.5/5 stars)
Hearts Turned to Ash – Dhonielle Clayton: A girl’s heart is turning to dust after her “soulmate” breaks up with her. She has to fix it with magic. The prose was delightful yet pointed. I would’ve tried to change the last paragraph, since it felt a bit like “duh.” The MC is also implied to be bi. (4/5 stars)
Letting the Right One In – Patrice Caldwell: It can’t be speculative fiction if it didn’t have vampires, and for them to be brought in by the collection’s editor seemed like an obvious move. A depressed queer Black girl hyperfixated on vampires who happens to stumble upon a vampire and ends up falling for her? Incredibly on brand. The story needed more space to develop properly since there wasn’t any history between the two, and thus needed breathing room. There’s almost no dialogue between the main characters, and the story ends with the MC’s parents getting divorced, making it feel like the writer was cramming too many character quirks into a very small box. Maybe it’ll work for some, but it didn’t work for me. (3.5/5 stars)
Tender-Headed – Danny Lore: Lore threads a story of family and trauma and makes a beautiful narrative that flips between sad, infuriating moments in the MC’s life and her attempt at fixing what she’s internalized and left undealt with. This one warrants a second read to decipher what was up with the MC’s friend, since it left me confused upon my first read. The story also has a f/nb relationship! (4.5/5 stars)
Kiss the Sun – Ibi Zoboi: Upon finishing Zoboi’s story, I was unsure as to what to think of it. Of all the stories in the collection, this one was its weakest point, personally. Some positives: I’d never heard of the mythology used in the story, the soucouyant, which was great for me to go and do research about; the story’s set in haiti and it comments on the way white foreigners come to the island to wreak havoc in the way of exploitation, unflinching in its honest take; and it talks about colorism and the way it can warp people’s minds (I am not the best person to talk about the way this is portrayed). However, and this is something I came across with Zoboi’s novel Pride, there’s so much internalized misogyny in Zoboi’s characters. The slut-shaming, antagonizing, and plain cruelness among her female characters at times is unnerving. Her characters call other “female” (they’re supernatural beings, so I don’t know anything about their gender identification) characters whores, and in an attempt to save face another character calls the “male” characters whores as well. The language doesn’t sit well for me as someone who’s pro sex workers’ rights, and this kind of word has been weaponized against them. There’s more about the girls fighting over colorism, but, again, I shouldn’t talk about that. I’d love to know a Black reader’s perspective on this one. (3/5 Stars)
The Actress – Danielle Paige: I’d never read anything from Paige, who’s famous for her Dorothy Must Die series, and I don’t think her writing is my cup of tea. Paige’s story follows a young actress in a teen supernatural series a la Teen Wolf and suddenly discovers she has magical powers after having her first kiss be on camera, with her crush. It was cheesy, but still enjoyable. Vampire and witch romance rights! (3.5/5 stars)
The Curse of Love – Ashley Woodfolk: A girl is descended from women cursed to decay in real time when they fall in love. Another new-to-me author, I really loved Woodfolk’s prose. This story felt so short, and yet wasn’t presumptuous in wanting to cram more story into something that was short and sweet. It was also a daring writing style, as it was told in both first person present tense and third person past tense. I don’t think the switch between tenses was absolutely necessary but it worked in this case, I guess. (4/5 stars)
All the Time in the World – Charlotte Nicole Davis: Davis’ story was truly one of my favorites in this collection. Drawing from fictional stories like Bernard’s Watch, and the reality of Black Americans with issues like racist police harassment and the Flint Water Crisis, the fusion made it into something reminiscent of Heroes or Not Your Sidekick. Written in second person, it doesn’t let the reader try to guess the main character’s gender, yet the author codes them as either trans masculine or butch. In any case, it still was gay, and there’s a sweet kiss snuck in there that felt won. (5/5 stars)
The Witch’s Skin – Karen Strong: Seemingly both dystopian and fantasy, Strong’s mix of genres works in this story starring a young girl whose love has been murdered by the Boo Hag– a shapeshifting witch who’s been terrorizing the island they live in and killing men of shady reputation by sucking their souls out. The wording chosen for the witch… saying she rides the men… Safe to say it was a disturbing read. (4/5 stars)
Sequence – J. Marcelle Corrie: To close out the anthology, we get a sci-fi story told in dual timelines, as it revolves around a girl using a new sort of technology that helps you see two different outcomes of a certain conundrum, such as deciding whether to tell the girl you like that you like her, or not. You can guess which possibility the main character chooses, but still, it’s a fun gay read to end the collection, sticking the landing. (4/5 stars)

The rating averaged out at: 4.125, so I’ll round it up to 4/5 stars.
Thanks to Penguin Teen for the ARC. I received it at YALLFest and I wasn’t obligated to write this, but still I’m grateful.

A Phoenix First Must Burn is out March 10th, 2020.
Shop your local indie bookstore through Indiebound (affiliate link).

Credit for the background image of the banner to Ashe Samuels.

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