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Book Review: The Phoenix Unchained by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Genre: Epic Fantasy, Coming-of-Age Fantasy
ISBN: 0765315939
ISBN-13: 9780765315939
Format: Hardcover, 398pp
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC (TOR)
Pub. Date: October 2007
Series: Enduring Flame Series, #1

If you are tired of all the gritty realism or the attempts to challenge the fantasy tropes that seem to be popular in fantasy fiction these days, then turn to my old friends, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Lackey is best known for her Valdemar series, and the two authors together have written the New York Times best-selling fantasy series The Obsidian Trilogy. Writing straight up epic fantasy that uses all the favorite elements of fantasy readers everywhere, Mallory and Lackey give us a wonderful break from the �fantasy as literature� crowd and returns us to the �fantasy as great escapism� clique.

In a not much heralded release in October, the two authors returned to the setting of The Obsidian Trilogy to begin a new saga, The Enduring Flame. The first novel in the series, The Phoenix Unchained, tells the story of two friends, one the Harbormaster�s son, the other the son of a minor noble, whose friendship is put through some grueling tests.

One thousand and eight years since Kellen the Poor Orphan Boy drove back the Endarkened, High Magic has ceased to be practiced. Wildmages are still born and continue to serve the Balance, but High Magic has left the minds of men. When Tiercel attempts a spell of High Magic, all unknowing of its effect, he sets forth a chain reaction that forces he and his friend Harrier to leave the city of Armethalieh and seek the help of a Wildmage. Along the way they meet a centaur, put up with some snooty elves, and befriend the most powerful dragon who ever lived.

The Phoenix Unchained is the first novel in a trilogy, so much of the story centers on character building. The theme of friendship is central to the story, and it is tested many times throughout. Harrier and Tiercel must overcome many obstacles, not the least of which is Tiercel�s impending death if he doesn�t find a teacher of High Magic. The two characters are different, and this difference makes them both close and causes friction between them. The narrative is a journey story, and so in it, we watch the growth of these two young men as they cross the continent, searching for the answers that will save Tiercel�s life.

Lackey and Mallory have done an excellent job of giving us a story that is simply a joy to read. They mix into the narrative the creatures of myth and legend like fauns, centaurs, pixies, and elves in such a way that the reader is immediately comfortable with their presence. They are old and familiar friends whose characters we have seen in a thousand tales. And this makes the novel fun to read. With just the right pacing, interesting characters, and sense of danger around every turn, fantasy fans will feel like they have come home after wandering in a desert.

Since The Phoenix Unchained is the first book in a planned trilogy, readers will find that more questions are raised than answers are given. The final scene of the novel raises an even greater question than that of Tiercel�s survival. Although the novel puts the imminent death at the forefront of the reason for the action, I felt that it didn�t really seem to affect the characters too deeply. Oh, it got mentioned on occasion, but none of the characters seem to fear its possibility too deeply. That harms the motivation of the story to some degree. And since this is a collaborative effort, there are a couple of places that there are plot holes. A few things are left unexplained, or characters act out of character based on what had come before, and I would chalk this up to the writers forgetting what another had written. Still, it doesn�t harm the enjoyment of the story, and most readers who aren�t critics will even notice.

The authors have done well in giving us the character of Bisochim. The villain in the story, he is a complex character who seeks to restore what he sees as the Balance. And yet, in doing so, he is wooed to the dark side. His motivations are good, but his methods are dark and dirty. He exemplifies the situational ethics of Joseph Fletcher. And in him, we postmoderns will see ourselves.

But we will root for Tiercel and Harrier as they encounter strange situations and are attacked from afar by Bisochim. The friendship of these two is sorely tried, and we will find ourselves wishing for a friendship like theirs, or appreciating the one we have that mirrors it. At its core, this is a novel about friendship, duty, and the existence of right and wrong. All of which are appealing themes to fantasy readers. With a quickly moving plot and Lackey�s characteristic and comfortable style of writing, spotted with humor, the reader will be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy some good old-fashioned escapism. The Phoenix Unchained will find favor with all those fantasy readers who are looking for a good book to curl up with at the end of a long day.

And if you are a Mercedes Lackey fan, check out her free podcast of TWO science fiction novels created with Steve Libbey.

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