A few years ago I read the debut novel by K. Arsenault Rivera's The Tiger's Daughter and I discovered myself thoroughly enjoying it. Just this year I've read the sequel, the Phoenix Empress and found myself sucked into this world once more.
The story picks up shortly after the events of The Tiger's Daughter concluded. Shizuka has become the empress of Hokkaro, while her wife Shefali is struggling with her own affliction brought on by being infected with demonic blood. After eight years apart they have been reunited, but in those eight years much has changed with both of them.
Forgoing the original story's epistle format, it is told in the form of first and second person narration. Shefali is generally narrating her ongoing struggles with helping her wife cope with the problems she has come into while she was away, and Shizuka narrates her past eight years of struggle under her uncle's thumb when he was emperor.
In her story Shizuka narrates the terrible years she spent alone, while also having to deal with her uncle's mismanagement of the empire. Finally, he sends her off to war where she encounters horrors she could only imagine.
The novel started off very well in my opinion, seamlessly transitioning from the letter story style of the first book to a more first person and third person narrative which flowed quite nicely. There was more in depth description of the Hokkaran and Xia-lan societies than we received previously, and we got some better examination of the main villain of the series as a whole, the mighty demon known as The Traitor.
However, the pacing in this one suffered terribly.
I will admit that I was hoping for a more action packed epic, but in the beginning we get some good world building which was sorely lacking from the first installment, so this tided me over. This though, did drag on for a time introducing a new character who became vitally important at the end of the novel (though she has been called a dues ex machina, somewhat correctly) while also leading rather subtly into the things which are now terrifying Shizuka. But very little of note actually happens until roughly the half way point of the novel, but after that things pick up considerably.
Though the build up to the final reveals were nice and subtle, there were times where I got annoyed by the dancing around the issue, as well as Shefali not figuring things out as quickly.
We also see that, rather than be improved, much of Shizuka and Shefali's relationship is startlingly unequal. Shefali still puts Shizuka on a very much undeserved pedestal, and Shizuka still makes impulsive and selfish decisions for her own ends rather than consult with others about what might be the right decision since she just knows. Though this does improve somewhat by the end of the book, I felt very often like yelling at the characters since Shefali really needed to tell Shizuka off at least once, and many of Shizuka's decisions were terrible when you give them a good deal of thought.
This though, was Shizuka's book rather than Shefali's. In my previous review I griped that Shizuka was selfish, spoiled and arrogant, and while she remains spoiled and arrogant she manages to shed some of her selfishness by the end of this installment and go a long way towards earning the unconditional love her wife gives her. It was nice to see some legitimate character growth.
All that being said though, like the original novel overwrought declarations of love do come up and across far too often. The motivations and actions of other characters are often obscured through the cloud of almost teenage angst levels of inner monologues that pass for thoughts of love in this book. Grinding past that you found some fun reading, and a few clever twists in the plot as the story wore on.
Some things did bother me where the author had not done enough research (a naginata is not a stabbing weapon) while some characters still felt underdeveloped. Poor Shefali's brother was given the short shift throughout most of the story till near the end, even though he is earnestly trying to help.
All in all, it was a worthy sequel to the original novel. If you can stand some of the more eye rolling sections of the romance and power through to the well plotted reveals and surprises in the last half of the novel, you will see some great character growth and a promise of a good sequel in the future.
While this is not becoming one of my favorite fantasy novels any time soon, it is definitely one worth a read.