Eragon with phoenixes instead of dragons has arrived.
And just like in Eragon, we enter into a world with no mythical creatures left. There were phoenixes once. And marvellous Phoenix Riders, who could telepathically communicate with their winged partners. The most famous include sisters Avalkyra and Pheronia Ashfire who long ago battled a throne to death. Now, the riders have all been slaughtered, but that hasn’t stopped rumours from spreading about a resistance slowly trying to train a new group to one day take back their kingdom. These rumours have spread to the ears of Veronyka, a sixteen-year-old orphan, or she would definitively be one if her bossy sister Val wasn’t always around to protect her from any and all dangerous measures, especially after law enforcement slaughtered their grandmother for believing in the rider revolution cause.
Meanwhile, a 100% orphan named Sev is out helping keep peace in the world with his soldier job for the Emperor while keeping his views behind closed doors. He was around when the last of the phoenix riders were taken out, and the battle burned down his home and his parents sacrificed their lives to save his. Does he get to know Veronyka well? I’ll leave you to find out about that, but a personal crisis forces her to leave the only home she’s ever known, without her sister, with the desire to make something of herself by finding a way to be trained with the phoenix riders when proof arises she could be one. The only hiccup; the camp only trains boys, and even if she were one, someone would have to be in charge of training her and filling her stomach. The only way to get in is to pull off some supremely risky trickery.
The best thing about the book is its self-awareness of breaking the skin-assumption rule. In most books, every book character is expected to be white unless specifically said otherwise, and it’s easier to assume this if a character’s names are not stereotypical-sounding. In this book pretty much everyone is said to have brown skin, allowing this book to, like the Black Panther movie, have a feeling of conserving appreciation for groups of non-white people; groups generally marginalized in the average fantasy.
The romance isn’t pushed too hard here, a plus in most books if you ask me. And the romance that is in attendance is quite memorably sweet. I wasn’t expecting an LGBT relationship to develop and certainly not be excited by it as much as I was. I also certainly didn’t expect who the two in that relationship would be. Even though it involves characters not in the spotlight as much as the others, Nicki Pau Preto did what she could and made me ship them mightily hard. There’s also the relationship between Veronyka and Val, and whenever that was in the spotlight, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Val reminded me of those parents so terrified of the world and so distrustful of their child that they don’t realize by protecting them, they’re ruining their lives by preventing them from being a part of the world they inhabit.
Tristan, another protagonist, is also a very complex person. He feels he has to be strict so he doesn’t disappoint his father, Captain Cassius, head of the hidden rebellion, and feels jealousy when someone else is put above him. Having to grow up with restricted love from his parent has made him hesitant to be good to people, and may have a say in his inability to be brave enough to perfect important Phoenix Rider tricks. He starts off mildly unlikable, but there’s never a moment we feel he’s an outright bully.
Throughout the book I couldn’t shake the feeling something was missing, though. It reminded me of The Last Magician, one of the most magical reads of the year, and certainly the heftiest. Crown of Feathers even has the same internal style, and the same publisher. I think the main fact is the book is kind of slow. Looking back on everything that transpired, this same story could’ve fit into a much shorter book. I don’t always prefer shorter books; The Last Magician’s large length allowed me to get to know these characters extravagantly, and so does this one. But The Last Magician was also filled with fast progression, and lots of exciting moments throughout that resembled the fast pace of the finale. This one seems to be more busy talking about history, whether it’s between Veronyka and Val or Avalkyra and Pheronia, and most of the time it’s not very relevant to what’s going on at hand. I was often excited for the flashback to end so we could return to what was just happening.
The book is not entirely what you are expecting during the first half, and while on one hand it made what I was reading edgy and unpredictable, on the other it made me wonder if I was going to get anything properly grand. I was mostly admiring how Nicki Pau Preto’s debut novel managed to be complex, despite the occasional amazement she stretched it through 100 big pages, then 200, and eventually 500. So the Mulan-esque storylines alongside the ideas of forced breeding and massacres for the best – basically, all things that show up very well into the book, made it just good enough to be classified as a treat.
Crown of Feathers’ slow pace made me unable to love it as much as I was hoping, and I was hoping to love on it from the get-go for its proud POC cast of solidarity. But though I didn’t love it, I was very far from hating it, especially compared to some rather insultingly uninvolving fantasies I’ve read this year, and the relationships in this book that elevate it to noteworthy. I’d read it if you like the ones that go deep.
If you like this, try: Eragon, An Ember in the Ashes, The Last Magician