Goodreads Book Blurb:
Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.
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.
It’s always tricky reviewing an anthology as the collection can be hit or miss. On top of that, I can struggle with short stories; they’re either too complex for the length or too simple to feel any real connection to the characters. So I’m going to try to tackle this story by story to arrive at an overall rating.
When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb – Amerie ★★★★
DYSTOPIAN FICTION | MILITARY SCI-FI
While this story could totally be expanded into a novel, it felt well-suited to the short story format. It did take a little time to understand what was going on as there’s an abrupt jump from Earth to space that made me feel like I had missed something, but Mae carries this story well. Her outsider perspective of the invading orcs contrasts well with Santos’ more tolerant understanding. There’s actual growth and development in the relationships, and the story is both complex and surprising – a solid start to the entire anthology.
Gilded – Elizabeth Acevedo ★★
HISTORICAL FICTION | MAGICAL REALISM | ROMANCE
While the ending of this story was absolute perfection, the rest of it felt too expected. Despite the magical realism spin, this was a typical slavery rebellion narrative. Especially coming so soon after Caldwell’s introduction about how this collection was to address a lack of representation outside of the stories she could find as a child, those “rooted in pain set amid slavery, sharecropping, or segregation“, this story didn’t quite gel with the rest of the collection.
Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life – Rebecca Roanhorse ★★★
HISTORICAL FICTION | LESBIAN | MAGICAL REALISM | WESTERN
I loved the concept of this story. The desert is a strong character, a surprisingly bloodthirsty one, making a covenant with Mo by saving her life in exchange for vengeance. However, it was short, even for a short story, and I wanted more. Is only the desert a magical being? Do other environments have different personalities? I want an entire series about the role these environmental beings could play in developing surrounding societies and how they would interact.
The Rules of the Land – Alaya Dawn Johnson ★★
ABUSE | ADDICTION | FOLKLORE
I knew nothing about the Yoruba people and loved this introduction to Yemaya and Olokun, the deities of the surface and the depths of the ocean. But, unfortunately, this story was mostly about selfish and abusive parents, and I just felt overwhelming sadness for Nena. She constantly makes excuses for her parents and takes on all the responsibility, along with all of the consequences. So, rather than empowering, it felt repressive.
A Hagiography of Starlight – Somaiya Daud ★★★★★
GOTHIC | HIGH FANTASY | MYTHOPOEIA
I want an entire series built around this story. Khefa’s fearless love for dancing, life, and Bayyur is inspirational, even with its catastrophic consequences. Beautifully written, I loved the arrogance and the dark undertone to the narrative.
Melie – Justina Ireland ★★★
DRAGONS | HEROIC FANTASY | MAGIC | MERMAIDS
Though it felt more juvenile than the rest of the collection, Melie’s quest to find a dragon and become a sorcerer was a fun take on medieval fantasy and was super easy to read.
The Goddess Provides – L.L. McKinney ★★★★★
HIGH FANTASY | MYTHOPOEIA
Riddled with betrayal and revenge, I was impressed with the complexity of this short story. There was an incredible arc, a well-developed mythology, and some deep emotions. Akanni is a badass protagonist, and this story was absolute perfection.
Hearts Turned to Ash – Dhonielle Clayton ★★
MAGICAL REALISM | ROMANCE
This was an interesting concept, but it came off a little man-hating and anti-relationship.
Letting the Right One In – Patrice Caldwell ★★★
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE | LESBIAN | MENTAL HEALTH | VAMPIRES
Ayanna and Corrie are adorable together, and their romance was so sweet, but I do think the short story format worked against its potential. The romance could have developed more naturally in a longer form, feeling less like instalove, and I would have loved more exploration into Corrie’s existence as a vampire. In addition, I think the discussion about mental health and depression deserved more depth than was possible in this format.
Tender-Headed – Danny Lore ★★★★
MAGICAL REALISM | NON-BINARY | QUEER | RELATIONSHIPS
This was a beautiful story about repressed memories and relationships. Perfectly suited to the short story format, it was fully developed and well-written.
Kiss the Sun – Ibi Zoboi ★★★★
I was super interested in the soucouyant: shapeshifting, blood-drinking witches from Caribbean folklore. Exploring their nightly ritual allowed for a surprisingly complex discussion of colourism. The whole skin-shedding thing was slightly horrific – picturing all those skins lying around, waiting for the soucouyant to return – not a scene you’d want to stumble upon in the wild. Although, if you did, likely, you wouldn’t live long to remember it…
The Actress – Danielle Paige ★
CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE | WITCHES
This story came off as superficial and juvenile. Exploring fandoms and their reaction to casting people of colour in originally white roles could have been incredibly interesting. Instead, this was barely mentioned and then brushed aside. All of the ‘surprises’ were anticlimactic, and the story as a whole was pretty dull.
The Curse of Love – Ashley Woodfolk ★★
MAGICAL REALISM | ROMANCE
Like Hearts Turned to Ash, this was an interesting concept, but it came off a little man-hating and anti-relationship.
All the Time in the World – Charlotte Nicole Davis ★★★★
DYSTOPIAN FICTION | LESBIAN | ROMANCE | SUPERHERO FICTION
Okay, this needs to be the origin story of a superhero series, immediately. I’m classifying it as superhero fiction because there’s no way Jordan and the others who have gained abilities thanks to the Contaminant do not go on to fight evil in costumes. As terrifying as this society seems, primarily because of its similarity to our present society, I was totally hooked by this story and want to read more.
The Witch’s Skin – Karen Strong ★★★
The Boo Hag, a shapeshifting witch from Gullah folklore, is a terrifying creature. Nalah’s grief and overwhelming desire for revenge were powerful drivers for this story. There were some excellent plot points here, but I don’t think they were developed to their full potential. Some conclusions felt rushed or forced, possibly, due to the short story format.
Sequence – J. Marcelle Corrie ★★
LESBIAN | ROMANCE | SCIENCE FICTION
This had a real Black Mirror vibe to it. With sequences inside sequences, though, it was more than a little confusing. I liked the concept, but it just didn’t quite work.
Okay, after all of that – sorry, I know it’s long – I have to give the entire anthology an average rating of three stars. However, I loved the introduction to different cultures and folklores, and there were some seriously stand-out stories in this collection. And it has to be said; while it may not be qualitatively significant, the cover artwork is absolutely gorgeous.
Any thoughts? Leave a Comment!