I’ve used the phrase “queer as fuck and fucking amazing” to describe at least one book already this year. But it’s also appropriate for K. Arsenault Rivera’s second novel, The Phoenix Empress, sequel to last year’s The Tiger’s Daughter. This is the kind of Dramatic Gay content that I never knew I wanted—but now that I know it exists, damn you give me more RIGHT THIS INSTANT!
(Light spoilers for book one, The Tiger’s Daughter.)
Barsalai Shefali, daughter of the uncrowned leader of the steppe nomads, and O-Shizuka, heir to (and later Empress of) the Hokkaran empire, have been linked since childhood. Their mothers were deepest, closest friends, only survivors of the doomed band of heroes who went beyond the Wall of Flowers in the north to face a demon general. Since their youth, Shizuka has been convinced that she and Shefali had a great destiny, that they were unconquerable gods, fated to go north and succeed where their mothers failed, ending the blackblood plague that the demons caused: that they were destined to be together. Shefali was less certain of their godhood and destiny, but just as certain of Shizuka.
The Tiger’s Daughter recounted the adventures of their youth from Shefali’s perspective, including Shefali’s infection the blackblood plague—the first person ever to be infected and survive, albeit changed—culminating in their marriage and Shefali’s exile by Shizuka’s uncle, the emperor. Shefali may only return to the lands ruled by the empire once she has completed an impossible quest: acquire and bring back a phoenix feather.
The Phoenix Empress is essentially two stories at once. It is the story of Shefali and Shizuka, rediscovering each other after eight years apart, facing the deep problems of their potential destinies—and it’s the story that Shizuka tells to Shefali to explain how she’s changed. Why Shizuka drinks so much and wakes nightly from nightmares, and why she has no tears to cry.
In Shefali’s absence, Shizuka was compelled by her uncle to lead an army north to fight the demons (an exercise said uncle believed would cause Shizuka’s death) and in the course of this, saw thousands die, fought a god, could not prevent the death of someone whom she cared for, nearly drowned, and caused—unintentionally, but still—a devastating flood. And, not incidentally, grew a second Wall of Flowers to keep the demons back. It’s difficult for her to tell Shefali about these things, for she fears that her newly-returned wife will judge her harshly (as harshly as she judges herself) and leave her, and she fears that she’s no longer the girl that Shefali loved. She wants, now, to grow old with her wife, build a life and a family, but she fears that may not be possible.
Shefali loves Shizuka deeply, even changed as she is. But Shefali is also finding it hard to tell Shizuka that the dreams of a future she cherishes may not be possible: Shefali was told the date of her death by a god during her quest for the phoenix feather. That date is all too soon, and they still have to fulfill their youthful promises of casting down the cause of the blackblood plague. That plague troubles Shefali more and more. She hears demons, grows weaker, and fears to lose herself.
This is a glorious, powerful epic fantasy, a thing of destinies and powers, old secrets and human cruelties amplified by inhuman powers. Its greatest successes, though, are in the relationships between the characters: the steadfast and lasting intimacy between quiet, careful Shefali and impetuous, passionate Shizuka; the complicated feelings that both Shefali and Shizuka have towards Shefali’s brother, who betrayed them both to the emperor and caused their long separation. Shizuka’s relationship with her newly-discovered cousin Sakura, and Shefali’s growing almost-friendship with said cousin, is a touching, illuminating subplot.
The Phoenix Empress continues The Tiger’s Daughter’s theme of the importance of women’s relationships with their mother. Shizuka continues to be guided by her memories of her late mother, and Shefali’s mother exerts a considerable gravity on her emotional arc: I broke into tears at the moment when Shefali reads her mother’s letter, and learns that her mother is proud of her. Sakura’s mother, meanwhile, has left her a gift from beyond the grave: a letter that only Shefali can decipher, that reveals not only why Sakura’s mother abandoned her, but terrible truths about what lies beyond the Wall of Flowers.
Neither Shefali nor Shizuka can avoid their destiny. But as long as they’re together, they can have hope.
An elegant, lyrical epic of a story, The Phoenix Empress is full of emotion and incident and high stakes. K. Arsenault Rivera brings us believable, compelling, relatable characters in a fantastical setting, and gives us a heroic and touching romance to boot. I loved this book. It’s amazing. I’m really looking forward to reading more.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.