Phoenix Fire by Elizabeth Forrest
There’s a specific type of action movie that I feel is quintessential to the 1990s. Rated PG-13, this movie includes a splash of bad language and a dash of violence but carefully controls the intensity to garner the viewership of families. What violence does occur happens to bad people or people who are introduced exclusively to die—and thus don’t elicit too much anguish. Intrigue there’s a plenty, even if it doesn’t always make sense, and sometimes it takes leaps that seem more convenient than realistic. Then the climax comes crashing in at the last possible second, bringing a startling conclusion to the slowly-built momentum. Invariably it leaves a ton of open questions (which leaves the viewer going ‘is that bad writing, or is that merely life?’), and some characters limp off together while discussing a vague but heart-warming future.
Phoenix Fire, copy written in 1992, could be one of those movies. Honestly, I’m tempted to just end it here. The review is pretty self-evident. If you ever look back on those sorts of movies with fondness, I’ve got 364 pages of nostalgia lined up and ready for you. If you’re the sort to get bogged down in unanswered plot-points, or question the value of dedicating so much screen-time to a character who didn’t intrinsically matter, or feel flustered when you realize you’re 86% done with the novel and the main characters are just now figuring out that there’s a problem … then maybe skip over this baby.
I think I exist somewhere in the middle. I didn’t love Phoenix Fire, which, despite the name, spent way more time focusing on the very human character’s very human problems. While they were (mostly) fleshed-out and realistic, I don’t think I could describe any of them as particularly interesting, funny, or charismatic. Still, the intrigue running around in the background hooked me. It felt like any second the supernatural element promised would t-bone our protagonists’ worlds.
The mythical element of Phoenix Fire is hit-or-miss. We do get asides of the demon on the prowl, and at times it was downright creepy.
As time went on, though, the demon started to get too powerful, too detached, too something. His segments became a bore to me. It was obvious when a section was about him, and it was obvious how it was going to end: him surviving and getting stronger. Occasionally there were flecks of intrigue thrown into his sections, but nothing big enough to keep me hooked. When we switched over to demon sections, I inevitably decided to take a break.
The Phoenix, on the other hand, felt entirely like a miss. It was integral to the conclusion, yet wasn’t even discussed until, literally, the night of the final showdown. I had spent chapters wondering if Phoenix Fire were merely the first book in a series because the protagonists were still mostly faffing about their feelings and entirely un-supernatural problems.
I don’t regret reading Phoenix Fire. I didn’t know that I’d enjoy the nostalgia of the 1990s, but I did. And while the characters won’t stick with me the way some do, I enjoyed following kind-hearted people who, more than anything, wanted to love and help the world be a better place.
At the same time, though, this isn’t the sort of book I’d endorse unless the idea of a 1990s-styled action-book / light urban fantasy with Chinese elements geeks you out.
Badass cover art by Jody A. Lee: